Walter Henry Booth

Illustrator of Children's Comics, and an Artist.

                                                          W H BOOTH. ARTIST

 

On 23rd October 1919, Walter married Elsie Blanche Louisa Kent, the 23 year old daughter of Albert William Kent, a farm bailiff. Her family lived at Kidmore End, Reading but Elsie was born at Dunsden in Oxfordshire. The marriage took place at the Register Office in Wandsworth, London, by Licence and Elsie's mother, Eleanor, was one of the witnesses. Walter was then living at Clapham, a short distance away while Elsie's address was shown as Coram Street near Russell Square. This was very close to Walter's place of work at Red Lion Square but his employer, James Henderson & Son, was soon to be taken over by the Amalgamated Press.

Before long, Walter took Elsie back to Walthamstow where they set up home in Barclay Road with his parents, John and Alice. The property was also occupied by Alice Barnard, a widow who had been living there for some years. It came as a great shock when in 1922, after less than three years of married life, Elsie died in a Reading Nursing Home following an operation for appendicitis and acute peritonitis. It is quite likely that they were on a visit to her family when she was taken ill as their residential address was still Barclay Road.

By this time, Walter was well established at Amalgamated Press, with his picture serial ROB THE ROVER, becoming more and more popular. Then, in 1923, while still living in Barclay Road, Walter married Ethel Hammerton. This marriage took place at the local Register Office and was, once again, by Licence. Walter's sister, Florence Elizabeth Cox, was a witness as was his father, John. Ethel was the daughter of Walter Hammerton, a Master Builder from Chiswick, in Middlesex. The 1911 census shows that the family employed a housekeeper and a bookkeeper, possibly indicating that the building business was flourishing. Ethel, then aged 22, was a confectioner's assistant and I like to think that they met when Walter needed to buy tobacco for his pipe.

Walter's father, John, died in 1929 and his mother, Alice, in 1932.  Walter and Ethel decided to move away from London and they  left Barclay Road later that year but Alice Barnard remained there until her death in 1935. They eventually settled in Dolgellau, north Wales, which was a small market town situated at the foot of the Cader Idris mountain range in south Snowdonia. They occupied a large double-fronted house and before long, took in a young lady by the name of Grace, as a paying guest. Grace had just joined the staff of a local bank and needed somewhere to live. Her father, a retired sea captain, accompanied her to view the accommodation. There was a spacious room to be used as a bed-sitting room which was very pleasant but her father was horrified when he saw a huge gas geyser over the bath which had to be lit with a match. He advised Grace not to use it, considering it to be very dangerous. Grace settled in and was treated like one of the family and she sometimes used to join them for walks as the surrounding countryside was very beautiful. The Booths didn't have any children but Grace remembers Walter's niece arriving from London with her little boy, John. She also recalls a visit from a much older lady who could have been Florence, Walter's sister. Grace describes Walter as being an exceptionally clever artist and well remembers his skill in illustrating the serial ROB THE ROVER for the children's comic PUCK. This was the story of a young boy pilot and his adventures in a small aeroplane. The stories arrived from London by post and Walter would pick up his pen, anxious to get the black and white illustrations on paper, often doing five or six pictures at a time. He was also very careful with the facts and painstakingly studied the environment in which Rob's adventures took place. Grace doesn't remember Walter painting any pictures during her time there. They were all very sad when she was transferred to another branch of the bank and Ethel was in tears. Not long afterwards, Walter and Ethel moved to Barmouth about ten miles a way, a town with a history rich in connections to the shipping industry. With the advent of war, Dolgellau may not have been to their liking any more as 12,000 acres of land were taken over by the Admiralty for training purposes and the town became full of soldiers.

When Walter retired from the Amalgamated Press in 1954 they were still in Barmouth, living in Belgrave Flats, next door to the Arbour Hotel. Their groceries were delivered by a young lad on his bicycle who had to climb a flight of stairs to the first floor. Ethel would pay him for the groceries while Walter would be quick to put his hand in his pocket to find a few pennies, much to the delight of the young lad. Walter must have been a familiar figure in the town; tall and slim, usually with a long pipe in his mouth, a large brown felt hat and a belted raincoat. It is quite likely that he started to paint as a hobby about this time. Ethel's health began to deteriorate in the mid 1960s and she died in the Caernarvon and Anglesey  General Hospital on the 17th February, 1966. Walter made his Will in June of that year, making his niece his sole beneficiary. By the time he reached his late 70s, Walter's health was failing too. He moved to a boarding house run by the mother of the young delivery boy and she cared for him until he died in 1971. She would often sit by his bedside at night in case he needed anything and kept herself awake by knitting socks, scarves and bobble hats for the Merchant seamen. Sometimes Walter didn't have enough money to pay for his keep so he would occasionally give his landlady one of his paintings in lieu. After his death his niece arrived, followed by her son who took away all of Walter's paintings except for those owned by his landlady. Eight  paintings in total have now been located.  Two copies of the children's comic PUCK, dated 1933, and issue number 3 of MERRY MAKER COMIC, dated 1946, have now been acquired. Although comic illustrators were not allowed to sign their work, his name and date appears on some of his paintings. There is also an unusual, possibly sacred Egyptian symbol on two of them but its significance has yet to be determined.

Walter and Ethel were laid to rest in Llanaber cemetery, a few miles along the coast from Barmouth. Their grave is currently unmarked which is rather a shame considering his long and interesting life. It would be nice to honour the memory of this talented gentleman whose work was enjoyed by so many. 

  

Appendix

 

         RECOLLECTIONS OF MY FRIEND, WALTER BOOTH; by H. Stanley White. Hon ACE

At the time I was a student of Chiswick Art School, it was my practice to go to the Natural History Museum, Kensington, on Saturdays to sketch the animals. In those days there were more stuffed animals than diagrammatical displays. More than once there was another artist nearby, with his wife. It was Walter Booth, who was also sketching animals. We became acquainted and he invited me to his flat, while we sat under the painting (since removed), of a lion or a tiger, in the balcony restaurant. A picture by Swan, I think.Walter's Hampstead flat contained numerous volumes, such as "Wonders of the Past", "Peoples of All Nations", and the art books of the day. 

My first job, in the advertising department of Gordon and Gotch in Farringdon Street, came to an abrupt end one day when the manager did not care for the fact that I had not wanted to do some some work at home. Perhaps I should have mentioned that that day was also my 21st birthday! Who should walk in from the Amalgamated Press across the road, but Mr Booth. He said that if I failed to get another job, I could work for him drawing his backgrounds on "Rob the Rover", a serial he was drawing for the weekly comic, Puck. I might mention that I had helped him out on these occasions before.  This I did, and I spent long hours at his place, staying there for longer and longer periods. Our close association was a happy period of my life, and as he worked on "Rob the Rover" I used to read aloud to him. One adventure of "Rob" was in the Antarctic, and it was particularly interesting to go through all the available books from the Shackleton era to the later adventurers.

Mr Booth spent hours down Shaftesbury Avenue, sometimes reading a book in the bookshops, and occasionally buying one that he liked. We also sketched ships in the Science Museum, and may I mention there were more models in the Museum before they went over to Greenwich. Roland Hilder was also there sketching during his "ship period", and I regret I never travelled to South London to visit him at the address he gave me. Walter was keen on five-masted ships, galleons and the like, and I could get views along the decks for his adventure strips in the period, by kneeling down. These notes I made came in useful when I drew a set called "In the Days of Drake" for Bo-Peep some years later. For jungle scenes I persuaded Walter to come to Kew Garden, close to Strand-on-the-Green where I lived.

Walter's interests did not stop on what he was actually drawing for the comics at the time. He would get crazes. For instance, Japanese armour. Maybe this was an offshoot of his days in Walthamstow when his parents still lived, as he had been a student of Walthamstow Art School, and at Bethnal Green Museum there is a collection of Japanese armour. We did meet an ex-student of Walthamstow Art School, as in one's younger days one could run across one's own contemporaries if one walked along Fleet Street often enough. Two I remember were an odd artist, Austen Spare, who did some straight paintings, and Walter Spradbury, noted for posters, who had one painting in the National Gallery of prehistoric foliage. Incidentally, the interest in prehistoric life was a big thing of Walter's. I believe he did manage to sell a strip of that period, but not to Mr Purchase, his usual editor. He was also pleased to get out an adventure of the Roman period , as this was on offshoot of his terrific interest in Greek life. During his off-moments, Walter spent long hours painting large canvases of Greek life, maidens by the baths in the style of Alma Tadema Pointer and the like. Possibly this interest led him to make friends with F. Matania, but not in my period with him at Hampstead.

Walter also got a craze for buying small Roman glass and china vases, that certainly increased in value. Two other artists that he knew were Leo Cheney, a Punch artist of a brilliant pen style, and the illustrator Gregory Brown. His interest in anthropology, etc., led us to take a holiday, a useful gap provided by the Great Strike that closed down comic production. We went to the Isle of Wight and collected fossils at Alum Bay. Sandown Museum gave us more fossils. Incidentally, Walter's nephew, John Peowrie, has taken nearly all Walter's paintings to Toronto with him.

What I found confusing was that as well as being a serious adventure strip artist, Walter had an amazing sense of humour. He produced the comic front page of Puck, a circus set, and the characters were almost as well known as Foxwell's "Bruin Boys" in The Rainbow. We had many a laugh; I suppose it was a type of cockney outlook he had. Actually he went back to drawing the younger child work in the later stages of his life, and did the double page spread for Jack and Jill, There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. It was eventually painted for him by staff artists. He could fill every inch of a big scene with nterest - not forgetting a few jigsaw puzzles he designed for a Manchester firm during the war, when the A.P. folded up a lot of comics, including Puck.

Walter had escaped call-up in the first World War as unfit for service. Actually, he was just a bag of bones, as the only exercise he ever did was walking - but those bones were pretty tough. Alas, he would not have gone far in the services, as one day I came in and said I had seen an 'anvil cloud' portending a thunderstorm. He couldn't work after that, and sure enough when the storm started, he and his wife hid under the stairs! His face was long and thin, with fine large eyes that no doubt attracted the girls! (No need to mention a craze for girls, however!) His sure hand did not need the Bristol Board that I used - some errors at times he just stuck another bit of good cartridge on it. We used a lithographic nib that unfortunately has 'gone out' today.

I generally took the drawing to Amalgamated Press at Fleetway House, and handed them in to Walter Purchase, the Puck editor, unwrapping them on the way and studying them. I used to go and see the chief editor, Langton Townley, quite a lot. He would talk and tell me how he underlined in red the popular strips mentioned in the children's letters to the Editor, and then count them. However, he had the idea that women understood children more than men. Miss Foskett was the assistant editor of Bo-Peep, and she married Mr Anderson, the editor. Later, when I went on my own and it came to offering my work to Mr Purchase, he said I was too like Walter for him to use.

 I know little of Walter's early life. He went to Walthamstow Art College and left to take up a job in the Carlton Studio. Then he was working for a comic group that was bought up by the old Amalgamated Press. I once tried out for the Carlton Studio myself. It was near Masonic Building which was not then built, and was about the best Studio in town, with an excellent show of their work in the ante-room. Walter told me that one of the editorial directors at A.P., Mr Quittington, had told them to give him a free hand  to draw whatever he liked.

Walter had little interest in ordinary life, and chided me at reading The Morning Post and Boxing. "Not the interests of an artist", he said. I remember reading some of his books, "The Golden Bough" and "Crete", by Sir Arthur Clarke. My interest in astronomy stems from those days. Walter had gone to Wales in the first World War, and then went again in the second. There he continued his painting of Greek scenes, occasionally doing a landscape of the Estuary, continuing his geological interests, and making friends with the local cats. I visited him first at Dulgelly (sic) and then at Barmouth, where he eventually died.

It's curious to me but I can't think of much to add about Walter Booth. When one is young, a chap's past history doesn't seem significant, so I suppose we hardly mentioned what he did previously in our conversation. The Jack and Jill centre spread was the last page he did. he could do vast spreads of The Old Woman in the Shoe and all the children, as if he had done nothing else in his life. I said to him once when he was drawing the  Merry Maker comics which I edited, "Don't put a lot of work in it, Walter - we only get a little cash for it." He replied, "I can't work badly, Stanley."

The reason I went to Oslow back in the Twenties was that Walter's serial Rob the Rover in Puck was printed, "second rights", in the Oslow magazine, Family Journal. Also Walter had a Norwegian companion/help for Mrs Booth. When I looked up Rob the Rover in the volumes in the Hendon Newspaper Library recently, the boy was somewhat younger at first. 

Whether Rob the Rover was involved with Science Fiction or not? Well no, I guess it only went as far as a rocket type plane which Walter evolved. We both used to see the science-fiction films of the day together - F.P.One, Things to Come, and of course, Metropolis and the Flash Gordon serial. Walter was also interested in the Coerame (??) musical things at the Palladium. These gave those great stage sets that came out in his vast backgrounds. Walter never missed the latest in things; in other words, he had a grasp of new things in no time.

 

               Adapted from a series of letters written by Hugh Stanley White 1980-1981