Mystery Sheffield couple sparked career of Sir Quentin Blake

At Sheffield City Archives, there is a series of century-old cartoon illustrations which have, up until now, concealed a fascinating secret.

Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 1:51 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th March 2019, 1:58 pm
A section of the 3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Service, c. 1914 - a number of men in this photograph contributed to the Leadswinger publication (photo from Sheffield Local Studies Library)
A section of the 3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Service, c. 1914 - a number of men in this photograph contributed to the Leadswinger publication (photo from Sheffield Local Studies Library)

One cartoon depicts a young First World War Royal Army Medical Corps serviceman, smoking a pipe and carrying a violin case. Another shows a female trainee teacher, wearing a ‘teacher pupil’ uniform and clutching a textbook.

Recent research has revealed how, remarkably, the individuals caricatured both played a crucial role in helping to launch the artistic career of Britain’s best-loved illustrator, Sir Quentin Blake.

Pipsqueak cartoon of Col. McKinnon

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Blake’s highly distinctive artwork can be seen all around - in the books of Roald Dahl, Michael Rosen and David Walliams, on walls of children’s hospital wards and even on greeting cards. But, until now, it has not been known that the individuals responsible for first steering Blake on the path to becoming a professional artist were a couple from Sheffield.

Quentin Blake credited two figures from his school days as helping to determine his later career: ‘Mrs Jackson’, his old Latin teacher, and her husband ‘Alf’, who was then working as an illustrator for satirical magazine Punch.

In interviews conducted over the years, Blake recalls how Mrs Jackson came across cartoons he had drawn as a schoolboy in the margins of his exercise book,  in the mid-1940s, and showed them to her husband. The teenager was invited to the Jackson home to meet the artist.

Alf Jackson showered the schoolboy with advice, which led to Blake securing his earliest artistic commissions.

Front cover of the Leadswinger

Blake’s memories of Alf Jackson are of a slightly eccentric, violin-playing, pipe-smoking artist, who would frequently drop ash on to drawings on his desk.

However, the precise identities of Mr and Mrs Jackson remained something of a mystery. The truth about the couple has come to light in records held at Sheffield City Archives, chiefly through a remarkable document produced in the unlikely setting of the First World War battlegrounds.

One hundred years ago, in March 1919, the last edition of a little-known magazine The Leadswinger was issued. The Leadswinger was the First World War “bivouac journal” or “trench magazine” of the 3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Service - a unit which provided medical support to troops on the Western Front, including at the bloody battles of the Somme and Passchendaele. The illustrated magazine was produced in manuscript form ‘in the trenches, dressing stations and field hospitals’, from September 1915 to the end of the war, by a select group of young RAMC servicemen, primarily from Sheffield.

Bursting with articles, cartoons, short stories and poems, the Leadswinger aimed to chronicle the ‘lighter side’ of war and provided a welcome diversion from the hardships and horrors.

Contributors to the Leadswinger went under pen names. Recent investigations have unmasked the men behind the magazine.

The ‘Swingers’ (as they referred to themselves) were spearheaded by a young doctor, Captain William Barnsley Allen (1892-1933), with the pen name ‘Jack Point’.

Allen became one of Sheffield’s most decorated First World War heroes, awarded the Military Cross and Victoria Cross. But, after the war, he succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction, culminating in his premature death from an opium overdose.

Also central to Leadswinger operations were two brothers: Private Ernest Northend (1891-1964), pen names ‘Castorius Iodinus’ and ‘Ye Corporal’, the editor, and Private William Frederick Northend (1887- 1968), pen name ‘Dug-Out’, design and cover artist. The Northend family ran a printing business in Sheffield and, after the war, the brothers arranged for souvenir copies of the Leadswinger to be published.

A century on, printed editions of the magazine have survived, with original manuscript versions preserved at Sheffield City Archives.

Arguably the Leadswinger member who made the biggest impact was the chief cartoonist ‘Pipsqueak’ - real name Alf Jackson (1893-1971).

After the war, Jackson abandoned a career as a violinist to become a freelance artist and went on to mentor Quentin Blake in the 1940s.

Every edition of the Leadswinger, from September 1915 to March 1919, is peppered with Pipsqueak’s cartoons, depicting friends and comrades, and often-perilous situations, in comical poses (accompanied by witty captions, interwoven with literary and classical quotations).

One of Jackson’s old Leadswinger pals, Jack Jenkinson (1889-1965), who contributed articles under the pen name ‘Falstaff’, relates in his First World War memoirs how Jackson was a “practically self-taught artist”.

Jackson may have inherited artistic talent from his father, John William Jackson, who worked as a ‘silver engraver’ in Sheffield.

The Jackson family lived at 55 South View Crescent in the Sharrow district. Alf left school aged 13 and John William Jackson arranged for his son to be apprenticed to a local pawn-broker.

The work did not suit Alf. Before war broke-out, he left his shop role to become a musician, playing the violin in Sheffield’s silent cinemas.

Out on the Western Front, Jackson’s unofficial role as a trench cartoonist was secondary to his duties as an RAMC private. His illustrations, oozing with charm and comic-wit, are a far cry from the often-brutal reality of the life he and fellow Swingers led on the Front - navigating heavy stretcher-loads of wounded soldiers away from danger through mud-clogged trenches at the Somme.

Whilst the tone of the Leadswinger gives the impression of pals having fun and making light of difficulties, the continual peril Jackson and his RAMC comrades faced was only too real as reflected by the fates of fellow servicemen who Jackson caricatured.

Colonel Ernest Octavius Wight (1858- 1915), the 3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Service’s ‘Assistant Director of Medical Services’, was depicted as a knight riding into battle (on a hobby horse!) under a line from a Shakespeare sonnet in the Leadswinger of November 1915.

Just a few weeks later, Wight was killed by a shell on the banks of the Yser Canal, Ypres, whilst supervising the evacuation of wounded troops during a German attack.

A moving ‘in memoriam’ piece  in the Christmas Leadswinger of 1915, observes how, just days before his death, Wight had been “expressing his pleasure” at Pipsqueak’s cartoon of him.

Jackson suffered brief bouts of shell shock.  A German gas attack at Nieuport, Belgium, in July 1917, left him blinded for three weeks and gave him respiratory and stomach problems which afflicted him always.

There is a serialised story in the Leadswinger titled ‘Metamorphosis’ written by ‘Pygmalion’ and illustrated by ‘Touchstone’ - pen names of Private John Gerald Platt (1892-1975). The story is set 15 years ahead, April 1932, where the author depicts himself as a penniless, failed artist.

In actual fact, by 1932, Platt had become headteacher of Harrow School of Art. In the story, Platt relates how he leaves his home town of Newcastle and goes to Sheffield to try to discover what has become of his fellow former Swingers.

One by one he tracks his old comrades down, seeking them out in the “ale houses of Sheffield” only to discover they have similarly fallen on hard times. He encounters Pipsqueak (Alf Jackson) as a pitiful figure, forced to go from pub to pub, cap in hand, playing the violin for pennies.

In truth, Pipsqueak’s prospects were far more favourable. After the war, Jackson set out on a career as an artist. He began by contributing artwork for local publications, including regular commissions for Sheffield Weekly Telegraph illustrated annuals.

The close bonds between Leadswinger members continued after the war. An Old Comrades Association was formed in Sheffield for the 3rd West Riding Field Ambulance Service veterans.

One Leadswinger who played a key role in Jackson’s post-war fortunes was Private Edward “Teddy” Topham (1894-1966) , with pen name ‘The Scribe’. Topham had been a central figure in founding the Leadswinger and was a young reporter for the Sheffield Independent newspaper at the outset of the war. Jackson caricatured his friend with a caption “Brother Topham” which proved prophetic as the two men became brothers-in-law.

Soon after they were de-mobbed and back in Sheffield, in Spring 1919, Topham introduced Jackson to his sister Eva Lucy Topham (1902-2002), a young trainee school teacher, then still living in the Topham family home on Fitzwilliam Street. Jackson and Eva bonded over a shared love of art,

The couple married on 14 September 1926 at the Ecclesall Bierlow District Register Office. The following year they had a son, Gilbert Keith Jackson. The family relocated after Eva took a job as Classics and Latin teacher at Ashford Girls Grammar School.  Jackson started to receive regular commissions from satirical magazine Punch among other London publications.

By the mid-1940s, Eva was at Chislehurst and Sidcup Grammar School, where she saw the caricatures by teenager Quentin Blake.

Alf Jackson died in 1971, aged 78, just a couple of years after Quentin Blake published his first children’s picture book, Patrick. Afterwards, Eva wrote memoirs which recall her upbringing in Sheffield and how she met Alf. Eva died in April 2002, two months shy of her 100th birthday.