A Showman’s Commission: The Lost Edgar Wallace Furniture

Writer Edgar Wallace wearing a suit, trilby hat and cigarette holder standing on the street in Berlin.

Edgar Wallace in Berlin, 1928 © Wikimedia Commons.

'[he]...believed that money saved was money not enjoyed'.

In 1929 Edgar Wallace bought Chalklands, a large house in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire, for £5,000. In 1928 Edgar had earnt around £50,000, and he was enjoying all the lavish possibilities of such a large income. His refurbishments of Chalklands cost him a further £20,000 in furnishings and improvements: it was a large house already, but Edgar busied himself with the addition of two wings, stables and elaborately planned garden, turning it into an impressively large house. Among the furniture he ordered was a private commission from Shapland and Petter, Barnstaple manufacturers, of a sideboard, side table, cabinet, table and chairs, presumably to set up his new dining room.

The furniture was solid, respectable, and reassuringly expensive. This was Shapland and Petter in conservative style, with no arts and crafts frills or furbelows. Edgar Wallace always got a thrill out of spending money and he would have relished making this commission. Bespoke furniture from an upmarket brand, supplying Liberty’s and Heals among others, was a pleasant luxury touch. Edgar believed that money saved was money not enjoyed, and everything “had to be as luxurious as possible; any economy or hint of prudence seemed to him like the actual expression of the fear that his luck might not hold for ever”.

Front cover of Shapland and Petter dining room catalogue inscribed with special dining room

Shapland and Petter Archive, dining room book (detail) © MBND.

Edgar Wallace’s lucky life could be one of his own thrilling works of fiction. He was once one of Britain’s most famous and prolific writers – in the 1920s one of his publishers claimed that a quarter of all books read in England were written by him, and that his sales were exceeded only by the Bible. He produced countless articles, theatre plays, screenplays and around 200 novels before his death at 57 while in Hollywood working on the film of King Kong. He is now largely out of print and forgotten (although oddly he maintains a lingering popularity in Germany), but his rollercoaster life remains more fascinating than his works.

His life began in rented lodgings in Greenwich in 1875, born secretly out of wedlock to an actor, Polly Richards. Richards named her child Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace after his actor father Richard Edgar, and at her midwife’s suggestion fostered him with the family of George Freeman, a Billingsgate fish porter whose wife had already raised 10 children. At a week old, Edgar was taken to the four roomed house near Billingsgate, and by the following week his mother was back on stage in a play in Huddersfield. Polly Richards paid towards his keep for a few years, and when she could no longer pay, the Freemans adopted the boy permanently rather than see him moved to an orphanage.

The home was poor, loving and largely illiterate, and Edgar left school at the age of 12. He drifted from one casual job to another – newspaper boy, milkman, labourer – and at 15 he took a job on a fishing trawler, deserted it in Grimsby, and stole a pair of shoes to walk the 200 miles home again. He felt dissatisfied with life, and at 18 he enlisted in the Army, under the name of Edgar Wallace. His pay would be around £20 a year.

Open page showing furniture ordered by writer Edgar Wallace.

Shapland and Petter Archive, dining room book (detail) © MBND.

'...[he] begun to write poems and songs, inspired by Rudyard Kipling'.

By the time he was posted to South Africa as a medical orderly, with the Boer War clearly approaching, he had realised he wanted to find fame and fortune as a writer. He had spent his teens reading a great deal, primarily pulp fiction, and had begun to write poems and songs, inspired by (and derivative of) Rudyard Kipling. When the fighting began in 1899 he had left the army and been taken on by Reuters, and then the Daily Mail, as a correspondent, and established a reputation as being “an excellent type of the pushful Anglo Saxon”. He managed to scoop the details of the peace treaty, evading the government censors, to get the news back to England, but infuriated Kitchener who banned him from being a war correspondent.

Edgar married Ivy Caldecott – her father, a Methodist minister, opposed the match and separated from the rest of the family in disgust at her marriage – and settled in Johannesburg as editor of the Rand Daily Mail in 1902 on a salary of £2,000 a year. Within 9 months the proprietor of the newspaper had sacked him, and they left South Africa with hundreds of pounds worth of debt behind them. They boarded the steamship home with £80, but Edgar lost most of this on board ship playing poker, and they arrived in London with 6 shillings. They pawned Edgar’s watch for £12 and took rooms in a lodging house.

Open page showing furniture ordered by writer Edgar Wallace.

Shapland and Petter Archive, dining room book (detail) © MBND.

Edgar had been freelancing for the Daily Mail alongside his editorship, and now was offered a reporter’s job, at £750 a year. But money was perennially tight, since Edgar’s attitude of “if I wait to have what I can afford I shall never have anything” didn’t lend itself to careful household budgeting. The South African debts soon caught up with them, prompting several house moves around London to escape the bailiffs, and by 1905, strapped for cash and now a father, Edgar conceived a way to make a fortune, and wrote his first novel, a mystery story.

Convinced it would be a great success, Edgar advertised it widely and offered £500 worth of prizes to those who could solve the mystery, anticipating that he would have the money from the enormous profits of the book, and spending £1,000 on advertising as well. The book sold well, but Edgar needed close on £2,000 to extricate himself with the smallest margin of profit, and it now became clear than a book sold at 3s 6d might not bring in a fortune for its author. Eventually, furious, the owner of the Daily Mail had to extricate him from the financial mess, and when Edgar involved the paper in two libel cases in the next couple of years at the cost of £5,000 to the paper, they decided to let him go.

This was an unfortunate time for the family. The creditors were clamouring for payment, and Edgar took to the race course in the hope of raising a fortune, unsuccessfully. He ran a “tip sheet” alongside writing countless short stories, sold to magazines, and at this point created the figure of Sanders of the River, a jingoistic colonial tale set in a fictionalised version of the Congo. This was the real start of his great literary output. By the early 1920s he was making enough money to support two children at public schools (Oundle and Cheltenham), Ivy and her youngest child in a separate establishment (they had divorced in 1918), as well as his second wife Violet King – his secretary – and their child together. He needed to turn out stories and serials as fast as possible.

Illustrated poster of King Kong standing before actress fay wray

French King Kong Movie Poster, 1933 © WikiCommons.

‘...a showman for a showman’s town'.

His working day usually began early. He rarely slept for longer than 5 or 6 hours a night, and began work at around 5am. He drank endless cups of weak sweet tea, and smoked copious amounts of cigarettes. He dictated his stories, which were recorded on wax cylinders and then typed up by his secretary, an approach which probably partly accounts for the great narrative drive of his work. He could write a novel in 3 days with this system. When it was suggested that he could reduce his output and improve on his style, he would reply “the good stuff may be all right for posterity, but I’m not writing for posterity”. He aimed to simply and commercially entertain and to make a fortune in doing so. By the late 1920s he had achieved this, earning around £50,000 a year. In 1929 he bought the house at Chalklands, while still maintaining a flat in London, but spending most of his time in London in a large suite at the Carlton Hotel – he liked to be seen by the other guests.

In 1931, encouraged by his local party, he stood as a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Blackpool with the slogan, “a showman for a showman’s town”. His political knowledge had always been sketchy, and his sudden political ambitions were opportunist and frivolous. The Houses of Parliament would have made a prestige accessory to his luxurious life, akin to his box at Ascot. He was surprised and hurt by his defeat by the Conservative candidate, and accepted an offer of work in Hollywood at $2000 a week – as ever, his financial needs were pressing and the financial allure was irresistible.

Edgar was in Hollywood working on the screenplay for King Kong in February 1932 when he went into a diabetic coma, and died. His diabetes had been undiagnosed, but his habit of drinking extraordinary amounts of sweet tea, and his perennially lazy lifestyle – he claimed to walk only 4 miles a year – had been bad for his health for years. Due to his irregular accounting, confused tax arrangements, and complicated business structures, his estate was found to be £140,000 in debt. Some clever financial solutions soon meant that the estate was solvent, and paying out huge dividends from royalties, but Chalklands was sold, and the contents dispersed. The present whereabouts of Edgar Wallace’s Shapland and Petter furniture is unknown.

The Shapland and Petter Gallery is located on the first floor of the museum. The furniture archives are available to view on request.

Written by Anna Stopes

Editor Adam Murray

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