Sloper was a household name in his day, easily recognizable for his bald head, lanky physique, and bulbous nose. While he was known for his drunken behaviour and inept scheming in the early years of the series, he evolved into a steady family man and populist hero. The series was successful for so many decades because Sloper was a likeable character who made people laugh because of his human flaws, eccentricities, and goofy antics. One is reminded of how Homer Simpson, the main character in the animated television series The Simpsons, has entertained a devoted fan base with similarly boorish behaviour. Not surprisingly, a generation of cartoonists was inspired by the relationship that Sloper had with his readers. Dalziel was able to broaden that loyal readership by using innovative marketing tactics that encouraged readers to get to know Sloper over time. His most successful strategy was to offer a railway life insurance policy to anyone who purchased the serial and died in a train accident, but payment required that a copy of the paper be found on the body. On January 5, 1895, the paper reported that nine claims had been paid.
Dalziel showed that his comic strip could be marketed just like other consumer goods like soap or perfume. Indeed, Sloper became a popular culture icon with the wave of mass-marketing campaigns that put his face on everything from tobacco jars to porcelain tchotchkes. Sloper’s popularity grew steadily with these mass-merchandising efforts, and various manifestations of the character appeared in everything from street theatre to print advertising. Dalziel’s marketing instincts led him to offer merit awards to those who were deemed worthy of the “Friend of Sloper” designation. It was an ingenious marketing ploy to recognize loyal readers and further establish his name recognition. Sloper became a darling of public sentiment unequalled by real-life characters.
Today, Ally Sloper is an essential resource to anyone interested in the origins of serialized comics because the character set a standard for the invention of a genre. Modern-day cartoonists continue to look closely at Sloper’s evolution to understand how the character became a serialized phenomenon for nearly fifty years. To encourage further research into this comic strip star, this exhibit shows a sampling of Sloper’s most memorable antics from Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. The exhibit is further enriched with a biography of Charles Henry Chapman, who was invited by Dalziel in approximately 1899 to illustrate the series until it ended in 1916. The following is an account of Chapman’s life and work, written by his grandson John Chapman.
Head, Bruce Peel Special Collections Library
The Life of Charles Henry Chapman: Friend and Illustrator of Ally Sloper
Charles Henry Chapman’s father, George Chapman, served his apprenticeship in steam engineering. His intimate technical knowledge of heavy agricultural machinery, traction engines and road rollers made him sought after all over the country. The family lived in Thetford, Norfolk, before they moved to Reading, Berkshire, in 1895.
School records confirm Charles and his brother Arthur as residents of Thetford. Their entrance exam on April 27, 1891 included a drawing exam. In the spring of 1893 Charles received a first class standing in free drawing and a second class in model drawing. The year-end reports for the years 1892 to 1894 showed Charles with a generally competent standing, with his best marks in art.
At age 16 he attended the Kendrick boy’s school in Reading, where, with Arthur, he founded the school newspaper, the Kendrick Comet, which contained his illustrations. At school he was more interested in drawing comic sketches than learning; he was often in trouble for drawing caricatures of students and school masters.
Next he studied art with Professor Allen Seaby at Reading University, before being apprenticed to an architect. Apprenticeship was at the insistence of his father, who considered comic artists “less than human – just comic tramps”. The architect’s office was in Basingstoke, 38 kilometres from Reading. Chapman rode his bicycle to Basingstoke each Monday morning and returned Friday evening. All his life he had a passion for cycling.
He said “although it was fine training for a budding artist I never thought of myself being an architect”. He continued to surreptitiously draw cartoons and comic illustrations. One day he played truant, went up to London, and called at the offices of several well-known comic papers and boys’ magazines. He managed to sell a few of his drawings. He contributed to Punch and several popular boys’ comic books. His first drawing appeared in a comic called The Captain in August 1900. In 1903, at age 24, he started out on his own as an illustrator and architect artist.
Chapman became a regular contributor to several magazines such as Judy, where he held a staff position for two years, as well as Magnet, Chums, Boy’s Friend, The Captain, Scraps, Comic Life, and Comic Cuts. His first big break came with Ally Sloper.
Keen draughtsmanship and knowledge of current affairs helped him obtain the commission to draw the covers for the Ally Sloper weekly paper. This became his first regular paying commission, which he forever looked upon fondly. Ally was a character he described as “an ex-member of the aristocracy reduced to pauperism by his fondness of the gin bottle and the misery of a nagging wife”. The family also consisted of other comic characters, together with several little dogs. When I was younger he gave me several Ally Sloper drawings and, with a chuckle, pointed out the bulbous “cherry nose”, the bottle of “sauce” in the back pocket, and the trousers on back to front. Ally Sloper had adventures relevant to the events of the day. The drawings he gave me relate to the Henley regatta and Blériot’s first powered flight over the English Channel in 1909. His tenure drawing Ally Sloper ended in 1916 with the demise of the publication due to paper rationing for the First World War.
On the strength of regular work as an illustrator he married Winifred Lewis on May 24, 1905. The Lewis family were prominent builders and owners of a large timber mill. In their early years the couple lived in a large house in Woodcote, a small village 11 kilometres from Reading. This proved to be an ideal place to raise a family and have a studio. Because of the distance to London, he needed to drive what was the first motor car in Woodcote.
Much of his early work was drawing for Big Budgetited by Arthur Marshall. With the offer of more money, Chapman transferred to the Amalgamated Press. His next big break came with an urgent call in 1911 when Arthur Clarke, the artist who had been drawing Billy Bunter, suddenly died. Chapman was expected to draw all of the pictures in the Magnet, including the cover, in the style of Clarke. His first drawing was published October 7, 1911.
The appealing story, The Famous Five set at Greyfriars School, had Billy Bunter as a minor character. Chapman gradually changed his appearance and Billy rapidly became the star. The paper’s title changed to Billy Bunter’s Own Paper. Frank Richards, one of the many pen names of Charles Hamilton, wrote the text for The Famous Five and the Greyfriars School stories. This author-artist collaboration lasted for over 50 years, yet they rarely met. Hamilton would mail stories to the Magnet office in London, then Chapman would draw the illustrations.
In the early days mail would arrive in his studio on Tuesday; he would complete the illustrations and return them to the publisher on Friday. For efficiency he would sketch in pencil then work over the drawing in ink. Colour would be added later by another staff artist. Drawings were at least twice the size of the required final print; reduction was done at the printers. The publisher retained several illustrators to duplicate Chapman’s drawings and fill in the backgrounds. The time from receipt of the text to publishing was about six weeks. This pace would keep up all year. Breaks or vacations required several weeks’ worth of material to be prepared in advance. For efficiency, as work volume increased, Chapman was obliged to commute and work in the publisher’s studio in London.
There were several illustrators other than Clarke and Chapman for Billy Bunter, but Chapman was always credited with developing the visual character; other artists were required to work in the Chapman style. Frank Richards insisted that Chapman be the illustrator for his characters as he considered him to be the best.
In the 1930s Chapman regularly contributed to several other comic strips through the Amalgamated Press. These included The Happy Hiker, Merry and Bright, and “The Secret of Starcliffe” in the Sparkler. From 1936 to 1940 Chapman worked exclusively for Amalgamated Press. Thanks to wartime paper conservation efforts, on June 14, 1940 Chapman was given a month’s holiday and his tenure at the Magnet office was over.
At the age of 61 many would consider retirement. Yet Chapman managed to keep busy with occasional commissions and cycling in the countryside. He also wrote short stories, painted, and sketched. His drawings were used in The Cycling and Cycle magazines. He illustrated several books on the local countryside, The Austin Magazine. , and 12 double-page spreads for the Radio Times. . His scenery and building sketches were realistic but people were depicted as comical and whimsical. There is no record that any of his short stories were published.
In 1955 Chapman was called back to illustrate all future Billy Bunter stories. He continued until the final book was published in 1967 — Bunters’ Last Fling. — when Chapman was 86. The Famous Five comic strip was revived for the Comet in 1956 with Chapman as illustrator. The Greyfriars and Billy Bunter comics had a strong following of more mature readers reading books rather than comic strips. Chapman illustrated the covers and inside drawings for those books and annuals from the early 1950s to the end of the series in 1965.
Chapman lived a long, healthy, and busy life. He died July 16, 1972 at 93. He supported a family of ten children, insisting that all were educated and qualified with a trade. When asked what his secret was for his long, active life he would reply with a smile: “cycling and walking in the countryside and a daily cold bath”.
John C. Chapman