Published: March 17, 2018
Largely now forgotten, Edgar Wallace, creator of the King Kong story for Hollywood and once the most widely read author in the world, was born on this day in history.
In his time he worked as a street newspaper seller, medical orderly, poet, war correspondent, crime reporter, editor, playwright, racehorse owner, director, parliamentary candidate and Hollywood screenwriter.
It was a colourful life that would have seemed highly improbable when his destitute mother was giving birth and asked the midwife to find foster parents for her illegitimate son.
He was taken in by a kind London market fishmonger, George Freeman, and his wife, Clara, who already had ten children.
Richard Horatio Edgar Wallace spent a happy childhood with his foster parents but left school at 12 to start a series of jobs ranging from milk-delivery boy to ship's cook.
At 18 he joined the army and was posted to South Africa on the eve of the Boer War, serving with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
In his book, We'll All be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting, author Duncan Campbell writes: "When the war started in 1899, Wallace realised he would be happier writing about it than patching up the wounded. He sent shilling-a-word cables on the fighting to Reuters and caught the eye of the recently founded Daily Mail. Soon he was writing jingoistic pieces for the paper."
Campbell relates that Wallace became the first editor of the Rand Daily Mail in 1902, a year after marrying his South African sweetheart, Ivy. The editorship lasted only nine months and he then returned to London to cover crime for the Mail.
In 1905, by then a hard-up father, he decided to make serious money from writing and, according to Campbell, told Ivy that he would give his readers “crime and blood and three murders to the chapter. Such is the insanity of the age that I do not doubt for one moment the success of my venture.”
Wallace went on to perfect the modern thriller using his journalistic skills to produce sensationalist, fast-paced novels.
Dubbed the "King of Thrillers" most of his stories were highly popular, such as The Four Just Men (1905) and Sanders of the River (1911), both bestsellers. His work was the source of countless television and film adaptations in the Fifties and Sixties and his books sold in their multi-millions.
Working at a phenomenal pace, he went on to write over 170 novels as well as screen plays, poetry, historical non-fiction, 18 stage plays and 957 short stories. His publishers claimed in the late 1920s that one in every four books sold in England, apart from the Bible, was written by Wallace.
It was said that he could write a 70,000-word book in three days and the joke went round that, if someone phoned and was told Wallace was writing a novel, they would reply, “I’ll wait then!”
While they were waiting Hollywood beckoned and in November 1931 Wallace went to the US as a scriptwriter with RKO Studios. He dreamed up the idea of King Kong and notably contributed the epic Empire State Building screenplay.
He was never to see it. Wallace fell ill with diabetes and died on 10 February 1932. He was just 56.
In London, at Ludgate Circus, where Fleet Street ends, there is a wall plaque honouring Edgar Wallace.
It reads: "He knew wealth and poverty, yet had walked with kings and kept his bearings. Of his talents, he gave lavishly to authorship – but to Fleet Street he gave his heart."