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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

E. T. Portwin

I was rather saddened to hear the news yesterday that E. T. Portwin, who had written a number of evocatively titled books in the 1940s, had died on 16 December 2006 at the age of 94. I received an e-mail from his grandson, John, who was trying to track down a short interview I had published back when I was running PBO, the magazine I produced for the British Association of Paperback Collectors in 1995-98. I managed to find the text (still in its original WordStar format!) and, with thanks to John and his mum, I reprint it here.


For years, all I knew about E.T. Portwin was a list of his (or was it her?) books: The Zero Ray Terrors, The Limping Wolf, Death Swamp... I defy anyone NOT to be intrigued by such evocative, resonant, pulpy titles. As rare as rocking horse droppings, I'd never seen, let alone read, any of the books, but I still could not resist trying to find out something about the author. So, in the summer of 1994 I spent some considerable time trying to track him down - and was amazed one day to receive a phone call from Mr. Portwin, who told me a little about his books. A few days later, once I'd calmed down, I called him back and taped a brief interview, which I transcribed and put in a folder full of other 'forthcoming features'...

Two days ago, as I write this, my good friend Alan Austin of Time Enough For Books popped a copy of The Limping Wolf into the post for me. A thin, 140-page wartime hardcover in red boards, it has the most wonderfully lurid Jas McConnell dustwrapper. And just listen to the story: "They are strange people at Blackwaters, the lonely house near the river to which Guy Mortimer goes in response to a frantic appear from an old friend, Nigel Ingram. There is Ingram himself, a crippled wreck after a queer accident, dreading himself a werewolf, Reggie and Claudia Purdell, his cousins, appearing to encourage the cripple in his delusions, their uncle, Doctor Lester Duncan, feigning paralysis, Abel Muzzard, the ferryman, his wife, and their crazy giant son, Israel, steeped in witchcraft superstition. Then death strikes again and again, and Guy is plunged into a maelstrom of black devilry through which, on to a crashing, unexpected conclusion, pads the sinister shape of the creature that howls at night - the Limping Wolf."

Wow! And that's just the synopsis copy.

Let me introduce the man behind The Limping Wolf. Edwin Thomas Portwin was born on November the 2nd, 1912, and was four months shy of 82 years of age when we spoke. At one point during the conversation he laughed, and said "I've been a busy little chap," and the story behind those handful of titles bears out the truth in that joking remark.

"I made quite a bit of money as a young journalist by writing romantic stories for Thomsons of Dundee," he told me, adding, "They published everything I wrote, and Pearsons used to take some, as did what used to be the Amalgamated Press. I used to write as Elizabeth Portwin - my wife's name - for Lucky Star, Silver Star, Red Letter Weekly and one called Glamour. We used to write for, as we used to (rudely) say in those days, the girl who packed fish. You get the idea: the heroine under pressure who always came right in the end. They were actually quite moral in those fact, on the odd occasion Thomsons would send back a story with a note: 'Miss Portwin, we think there is an innuendo here,' and I didn't even know the meaning of the word.

"I also used to write temperance literature for the Methodist Church. The funny thing was that I was born with the name Portwine with an 'e' on the end. It's French, and The Evils of Drink by E.T. Port-wine was a bit much, especially as a lot of them were for children. They were charming people and wrote to me to ask if I minded if they knocked the 'e' off my name. It was always pronounced Portwin anyway, so I changed it by deed-poll.

"I don't profess to be a great author; I could just churn these things out. For the women's papers you could think up three plots per week, map them out the second week, write them in my rotten typing the third week and send them off to a typing agency who used to knock them into shape and make a very pretty job of it with a little clip in the corner; and then off they'd go to the publisher and you'd wait for the dull thud as they hit your mat and you knew they'd been refused. But I will say now that I sold the lot! In fact, when I stopped - when I really got going with my own company - I used to get letters from various publishers asking me for more of my work.

"But I had to choose between vegetating down in Cornwall turning out these pot-boilers or running a company, and I had a lot of children growing up, so I decided to stick with something steady and got a company going. And it got bigger and bigger."

After serving in the Navy during the war, Portwin took a job with Vawser & Wiles, based in Leytonstone. The company was one of three set up by the owner of the Walthamstow Guardian, Hector Vawser-Wiles, the first - Actinic Press Ltd. - in 1930. "Actinic Press was a medical publishing company," recalls Portwin. "For that I published a monthly journal, The British Chiropody Journal, and all sorts of books, mainly about physiology and chiropody. Their main one was Chiropody Theory and Practise by a man named Charlesworth, which was the Gray's Anatomy of the chiropody business. It sold year after year."

Vawser & Wiles, and its companion company the Featherstone Press, were set up in 1940 to exploit the paper shortage. "Two or three years ago, one of my staff turned up one of my books that I'd written during the war years called The Moorhouse School Mystery - picked it up at a boot sale for 10p. I didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted! They sold in those days for about 5/-.

"When I came back after the War and we got started on these books there was a demand. At Vawser & Wiles, there was a series on the theme of "How to Become..." a banker, a chartered accountant... I did one on 50 Careers for Young People and that sold well. There was a whole gamut of art books - we had some very good ones - and I think I must have produced about 100 books by various authors in those days. We did these annuals - the Feathers Annual - which used to sell a lot; we used to go to a 100,000 print in those days. Mind you, these were the post war years and there wasn't a lot of stuff about, so you could get away with it."

Apart from the children's stories, Portwin had written a number of non-fiction books for the firm: the war years were just as devastating for those people who hadn't been called up because many found themselves in new jobs, doing technical work which they weren't properly trained for, or starting new careers and in need of advice, which publishers like Vawser & Wiles supplied in handy books at five shillings a lesson: everything from How to Become a Solicitor to How to Start and Manage Town and Country Tea Rooms! "I wrote one called The Career of a Wireless Operator and we sold about 20,000," says Portwin.

Portwin was also branching out into his own publishing ventures, turning out stories for the fiction-starved market with two colleagues: "The set up was that one had got the print facilities, one had got the paper, and I'd got the stories. The paper merchant's name I can't remember, but the printer was a man named Hunt and we sold these things as a trio really, and then we took on a freelance salesman who flogged them round W.H. Smiths and all the rest of them. I can't even remember the titles...I think there were three of them."

He also sold to W. Partridge, the art agent who had set up a small publishing house in Bloomsbury under the name Pictorial Art. "Partridge wanted some pot-boilers and I supplied them under the name Gae Lyster - two of the christian names of my daughter..I always remember that because I didn't get paid!"

By the late 1940s, Portwin had given up writing fiction to concentrate on publishing, and "ended up as the owner of Wheatland Journals; we sold out to Stirling Publications five years ago - they do Debrett's Peerage. We sold out for eight million so it was quite a big deal." As the original company grew, Portwin had bought up a number of smaller companies on the way: "I bought up two or three companies, then I bought a photographic group, the Fountain Press; I ended up with about 100 employees, I think I had about 33 publications, most of them monthlies, most of them business publications, although I had a few consumer things like Photography which was doing about 90,000 and Movie Maker which was doing about 60,000. I started a number of journals, even one for weightlifters called Vigor, and another one for table tennis fanatics! I started one that's still going called The Amateur Stage. I also published a lot of books, so when I look back on it all, I published an enormous amount. I bought two printing companies - well, bought one, the Caines, and started the other - the Hastings Printing Company.

"I also had a daily newspaper at one time. Nobody's ever heard of it, but it's older than The Times. It was called The Public Ledger, founded in 1759 and published 6 days a week. It started as a coffee-house paper and used to advertise runaway slaves but developed into a commodity newspaper; if you wanted to find out the price of peanuts, shelled or unshelled, we got the daily price. We sold that one for a considerable price some years ago for a quarter of a million."

When we last spoke, Portwin was still cheerfully busy: "I had a hip replacement some time back, but I'm fit in wind and limb generally. I'm a member of all sorts of clubs: Watford Rotary Club, the Probus Club for retired professional business people; I play bowls occasionally - not very well; I walk, ride...I've been all over the world, most countries, as a publisher. Founded exhibitions - quite a number of those - so I did alright, didn't I?

"A chequered history, but I've had a jolly good time out of it!"
Frontispiece to The Zero Ray Terrors.

The Zero Ray Terrors. London, Vawser & Wiles, Jul 1946.
The Limping Wolf. London, Vawser & Wiles, Oct 1946.

Novels as Elizabeth Portwin
The Fire Folk. London, Featherstone Press, Dec 1943.
The Man Who Stole Moonbeams. London, Featherstone Press, n.d.
When the Earth Stopped Spinning. [London, Featherstone Press?], n.d.
The Giant, the Dwarf and the Whistling Bird. London, Featherstone Press, Aug 1946.

Short Stories
Death Swamp, and other adventure stories. London, Vawser & Wiles, Oct 1946.
The Scowly, Yowly Monkey and other stories. London, Featherstone Press, Oct 1946.
The Moor House School Mystery, and other stories. Southend-on-Sea, Southern Editorial Syndicate, Sep 1947. (contains: The Moor House School Mystery; Chubby Thripp Takes the Cake; The Schoolboy From Nowhere; The Jassop House Journal; Spadger's Ants; Ahmet Ali Writes Home)

Short Stories as Gae Lyster
No Love So Blind.
London, Pictorial Art, 1946.

Morse and the Morse Code Operator.
London, Featherstone Press, 1943; revised as The Career of a Wireless Operator, London, Vawser & Wiles, Jan 1944.
First Steps in Electrical Engineering
. London, Vawser & Wiles, Jun 1944.
Fifty Careers for Young People
. London, Vawser & Wiles, Jun 1944.
Writing for the Trade Press
(as by Wade Lyster). London, Vawser & Wiles, Nov 1945.
Making Florestry Your Business
(as by Angela Johnson). Southend-on-Sea, Southern Editorial Syndicate, Jun 1948.


Anonymous said...


I thought you might like to know that the "newspaper nobody has heard of" is still running. I am The Public Ledger's current editor, and although nobody has heard of it, we still know the price of peanuts - shelled and unshelled. I'm researching its history with a view to publishing a book for its 250th year (2010, though I'm interested to note Mr Portwin saying it was first published in 1759 - that would cut my deadline). If you by any remote chance had any more details on Mr Portwin's time as owner, it would be great to hear from you -

Anonymous said...

Have just found this article about Mr Portwin.
I used to work for Wheatland Journals in Watford and have very fond memories of my time there.
The big house in Hagden Lane is no longer there but I drive past where it was frequently.
I am now retired and have time to sit at my PC and spend more time with my grandchildren.
Thanks for the memories. Carole

Anonymous said...

I also worked for Mr Portwin as his secretary, I worked for his Company Arrow Press, I too have fond memories of my time there, and can honestly say it was the best job I ever had.


Anonymous said...

Have just come across a book written by Elizabeth Portwin - The Day the Earth Stopped Spinning - as my wife was goingthrough her box of 'treasures'! She thinks it was her first book so would put it during the late forties. How many such books were written?

Steve said...

Hi Doc,

I've only been able to trace the titles of four such books - listed in the bibliography. There may have been more as small publishers in those years of paper shortage immediately after the Second World War did not always send details of their output to the copyright libraries.