Eagle Daze: The Life and Times of Leonard James Matthews – Part One
Leonard Matthews, General Managing Editor of Fleetway and the Eagle Group of Comics, was a “Creative Visionary”… but that, Roger Perry argues in his extensive ten part biography of the man which begins today on downthetubes, is only due to him having utilised the ideas of others…
Leonard James Matthews was born in Islington, North London, on Saturday, 10th October. Elsewhere he has erroneously been given the name of Leonard Joseph Matthews, but at his death was listed as Leonard James and close friends such as George Beal also knew him as Leonard James. To endorse this, it was a centuries-old tradition that fathers handed down their names for their sons to use and Leonard’s father had been named James Edward Matthews.
Before joining the Amalgamated Press as an editorial assistant in 1938, he previously had worked for an Italian carpet manufacturer. (Unfortunately, it has never been made clear as to whether this employment had been in Italy or here in the United Kingdom). From there, he went to work in the Bayswater-based department store, Whiteleys, during which time he ran Whiteleys Dance Band.
Amalgamated Press was looking to fill the position of an editorial assistant, and having advertised the post, Matthews – who had a talent for drawing – submitted some of his work and subsequently secured an interview with the then director of the company, Monty (Montague) Haydon. Impressed with Matthews’ abilities, he was immediately hired – only for his new career to be interrupted by the start of World War Two.
Starting at the age of 25, Matthews enlisted with the Royal Air Force – but he didn’t stray that far away from home, remaining in London during his military service, possibly due to his past association with, and having worked for, the Italian carpet company. He was stationed at an Air Ministry department based in nearby Kingsway, and not only did Matthews compile government training manuals there but also volunteered as an Air Raid Warden fire lookout.
Kingsway is a fairly small area that runs between Holborn Circus (at its northern end) and the Aldwych (to the south) – the latter being the junction where the Strand (which starts out from Trafalgar Square) meets up with and butts onto Fleet Street before it heads off towards the east.
For those of you who like to know these things, under the wide dual carriageway of Kingsway, there is a truly massive area where trams and other vehicles of public transportation such as trolley-omnibuses – when not in service or were in dire need of repair – had been garaged. Opened in 1906, the Kingsway Tram Subway once ran underneath the length of Kingsway, taking passengers from Holborn to the Aldwych and then emerging below Waterloo Bridge. The tram tracks leading from Southampton Row and towards the Strand (to the south) took vehicles to the repair depot where all the necessary equipment was together with the all-important inspection pits. It is likely that this was where the Air Ministry department had been set up due to its relative safety of being deep underground and well below street level
Matthews carried out his night time obligation alongside a similarly-aged youth named George Allen – someone whom he’d first met while working at Whiteleys Department Store and who ultimately became a lifelong friend. Old Fleetway House in Farringdon Street isn’t all that far away from Kingsway – perhaps just under a mile all told – and it had been an easy fifteen-minute stroll, so during his free time, Matthews had been able to keep his hand in by carrying out various editorial tasks at his old hunting ground – the Amalgamated Press.
On one occasion while he and George Allen had been in the guise of being on fire duty upon the rooftops of Farringdon Street, a number of fire-bombs had fallen in the area, with two having landed upon the roof of Old Fleetway House. Using spades, Matthews and his chum Allen had quickly scooped them up; shovelled them over the side onto the pavement far below; and although Old Fleetway House had remained intact and virtually unharmed, it had been the building right next door that had burned itself down to the ground.
When he was 30, Leonard married Pat, an actress who’d had show-business connections and they’d together appeared in a short film. But the marriage hadn’t lasted and after three years, they parted. Ten years later – and some time after he had resumed his editorial duties at Amalgamated Press – Matthews married Barbara Hayes, an attractive brunette who had been working on one of the company’s nursery papers. The resulting union produced one son and one daughter, the latter named Josephine, perhaps due to his penchant for all things Napoleonic. (This interest allegedly meant that, despite living in Esher, under no circumstances would he concede in using the main line railway station at Waterloo, Esher’s nearest railway terminus).
After the war, Matthews returned to Amalgamated Press to work on Knockout, becoming its editor, and then a year later, taking on the editorship of a magazine called Sun.
The magazine Sun – together with its companion, Comet – were two papers that Amalgamated Press had purchased from the Cheshire publisher J B Allen. The reasons for the purchase were driven by the restrictions caused by paper rationing of the time, rather than either magazine’s creative content.
The aftermath of World War Two was a time of great scarcity in Britain. Not only did every Briton have to contend with ration books and food coupons, and all that went with them – wartime paper rationing continued, too. Although the process of de-rationing began in earnest in 1948, restrictions on newsprint continued into the late 1950s, and was often a subject for parliamentary discussion, as you can see from this debate in 1955.
Newspapers were limited from September 1939, at first to 60 per cent of their pre-war consumption of newsprint. Paper supply came under the No 48 Paper Control Order, 4 September 1942 and was controlled by the Ministry of Production, under which it became illegal to throw away or burn paper. By 1945, newspapers were limited to 25 per cent of their pre-war consumption, and wrapping paper for most goods was prohibited.
Each newspaper or magazine was given a specific paper allocation and by purchasing the Sun and Comet, the paper allocation these two papers had was automatically transferred over to the new owners.
If you care to glance at the publisher’s imprint towards the back of early issues of Eagle, you will note that it mentions that it incorporates a magazine called Merry-go-round – a paper that once was… but then was no more. The ploy for this had been so that when Eagle was originally launched, with the addition of Merry-go-Round, Eagle had been able to have the official seal of approval for having the paper allocation for two magazines. Without the additional allocation, Eagle would not have been able to have had the high print runs that it enjoyed.
David Motton (later to become an experienced script – and story-writer) had been looking for a job of Sub Editor and / or script writer and had been hired to work on Sun. In an interview for downthetubes in 2011, he has said of Matthews: “He gave me my start with encouragement and optimism which we all need when we are young.”
There is something else that perhaps we really ought to pause and give some serious thought to. One has to ask whether it had been due to the recent acquisition of these two independent comics – namely the Sun and Comet… plus the bonus they had offered by way of the extra paper allocation – that temporarily had blinded Monty Haydon’s eyes to a dummy for a revolutionary new boys’ paper.
That summer, while systematically touting his newly-created dummy for the Eagle around from one publishing house to the next, having visited Old Fleetway House, a certain young Southport vicar, one Marcus Morris, had come away with the increasing disappointment of having been turned down once again. As we all now know, Monty Haydon’s rejection of the project was Lord Edward Hulton’s gain. Whether Leonard Matthews’ opinion was sought regarding this proposal – as will gradually become clear – could be of some significance.
In Part Two, I bring in a junior sub editor – Brian Woodford – who plays a key element to the story of the story of a highly unusual man, Leonard Matthews…
This article, the first of twelve parts, has been put together using material from Leonard Matthews’ obituary as written by George Beal for the Independent newspaper dated Friday, 5th December 1997; Living with Eagles compiled and written by Sally Morris and Jan Hallwood (particularly pages 219 to 222); David Slinn’s research notes during 2005 in connection with the authoring of Alastair Crompton’s Tomorrow Revisited and from Brian Woodford’s association with Matthews at the Amalgamated Press between 1955 and 1962. Entries also come from both Wikipedia and from the internet under the heading Fleetway Publications.
Further pieces have been taken from Eagle Times as and where identified; the blog-spots of Michael Moorcock’s Miscellany (particularly 9th and 10th April 2013) and Lew Stringer’s Blimey! where he refers to the Top Spot magazine. The remainder is from Roger Perry’s own personal association with Leonard Matthews between the years of 1978 and 1991.
Our thanks to David Slinn for providing imagery and information in the creation of this feature.
More Eagle Daze
Roger explores the beginnings of the destruction of the Eagle…
The comic magazine Top Spot, published in 1958, was Matthews’ brainchild – but it was the male counterpart of an already existing magazine and it was a title that faced plenty of problems as it ran its course before merging with Film Fun after just 58 issues…
Roger outlines how Matthews jealousy almost destroyed the Eagle…
Roger reveals a possible mole working on the Eagle and trouble behind the scenes on Girl…
How a Marks & Spencer Floor Detective Became Managing Editor of Eagle…
Roger reveals how Dan Dare co-creator Frank Hampson was thorn in Leonard Matthews side…
Trouble at the top for ‘The Management”, the troubled debut of Boys’ World – and the demise of Ranger
On the creation of Martspress, the company that would publish TV21 in its later, cheaper incarnation…
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Roger recalls how Men Only was given a new lease of life – and Leonard Matthews’ ignorance of Star Wars…
A phone-call out of the blue brings about a closer relationship with the one man Roger had once feared the most…
A search for elusive promotional film stills end in the middle of nowhere in a one horse town without a horse – and Eagle‘s production methods are recalled
Roger clarifies points made in past chapters, looks back on Leonard Matthews career – and sums up his contribution to British comics – and publishing in general…