Percy F. Westerman

Percy Westerman Percy Francis Westerman (1876-1959) was one of the most popular writers of adventure stories for boys from before the First World War until after the Second. Among his books—the Wikipedia entry lists 178—are several which are science fiction: the first was The Flying Submarine (1912). For more details, see Clute’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

It cannot be said that Westerman was a great fiction writer. But he still has his devotees, such as Derek Brown, who nevertheless admits that Westerman’s prose style

surely puts him among the very worst writers ever to have had more than one book published.

I don’t care. I like the stuff. I like it so much that beside me as I write, there are 155 Percies: five yards of brightly coloured, slightly foxed, much-loved mangled syntax. They’re beautiful. And yes, I do read them. l’m proud to be a Wester-maniac.

To give you the flavour of the thing, here is the splendidly representative opening paragraph of First Over, published in 1948.

“Seen this, old kite?” asked Arnold Brough, handing his chum a copy of a well-known aeronautical journal. “Simply just wizard, what!”

When he wrote that, Westerman had spent 40 years honing his art. It was tosh, of course, quaint old fashioned tosh. And it took him to the top of the tosh tree. He dominated the latter half of a golden age of popular juvenile fiction; an age which was made possible by a combination of cheap printing and universal literacy, and which was killed by rising costs and television.

Westerman was born on 18 May 1876 in Portsmouth, the son of a retired master-at-arms in the Royal Navy who then worked as an estate agent. Percy was the eldest of four boys: two died in infancy, and the last became a teacher and, during the Great War, ended as a Captain in the Royal Army Service Corps.

Percy entered Portsmouth Grammar School in 1890. The school had three vocational streams: Navy, Army, and Mercantile, and Percy was initially enrolled in Mercantile (i.e. commercial), where he achieved some success. He then joined Navy, presumably hoping for a naval career. He left school in 1893, and one of the few pieces of correspondence preserved among his papers (now at the University of Worcester) is a letter from the Admiralty, of 14 December 1893, rejecting his application to join the Royal Navy because of his eyesight. Instead he joined the Royal Naval Dockyard as a clerk.

In 1900 he married Florence Wager, and their honeymoon was divided between a cycling tour (Westerman was a keen cyclist, and his first publication was an article in The Cyclist in 1896) and yachting on the Solent. In 1901 they moved into a house in Southsea (a gift from his father), and a son was born: John Francis Cyril Westerman (who later became a writer for boys, like his father). John would later explain that his father

took up writing boys’ adventure books in 1907 as a result of a sixpenny bet with my mother who said he could not write a better book than the one he read to me when I was confined to bed with chickenpox. He won his bet when his first book “A Lad of Grit” was published later that year by Blackie and Sons (Gossop p. 9).

He published three books in 1911, and decided to give up his clerical job and take up writing full-time: between 1911 and 1918 he wrote 34 books. He and Florence moved to Lymington, and he bought a boat (the Norseman) and began exploring the coast and inland waterways of England. Soon afterwards he bought a houseboat, the Victoire.

After his War Experiences, he sold his house and moved into the Victoire. Both the Norseman and the Victoire were moved to the upper reaches of the River Frome at Wareham. However, the Victoire was not large enough for him, it seems: he bought and, with his son, refurbished The Barge as his home. He and Florence lived there until 1946.

In 1927 he signed a contract with the Glasgow firm of Blackie and Son , for whom he head to write a minimum of three books a year, with exclusive UK rights. He regretted the contract, but through them he was able to become a best-seller in the 1930s.

He served as a lieutenant in the Third Dorset (Poole) Battalion of the Home Guard in the Second World War (he later moved near to home with the Seventh Dorset (Wareham) Battalion). Leisure sailing was not encouraged during the war, so he took the launch belonging to the yacht club that he and John had founded and used it to “patrol” the River Frome.

In 1946, Westerman put a foot through the deck of The Barge, and broke his leg; he and Florence began living in a bungalow in Wareham instead of on the water. He went on writing, although his health was deteriorating. He died in February 1959, and his ashes were scattered on the Frome near the now rotting Barge.

My information is from Nigel Gossop, Tales of Pluck & Daring: The Life and World of Percy F. Westerman (Portsmouth Grammar School Monograph Series no. 24) (Portsmouth: Portsmouth Grammar School, 2012). The article on his in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is by Dennis Butts.



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