First World War: Why Suffolk really ought to know about Frank Elias

The 1940 edition of The Mine Detector: essentially the same story as 1915, with a few tweaks to bring it up to date. The 1940 edition of The Mine Detector: essentially the same story as 1915, with a few tweaks to bring it up to date.

Monday, June 23, 2014
10:38 AM

A different tale today: a story of ‘spies’, a special song for brave men, and a writer who ought to be better known. STEVEN RUSSELL hears why we should remember Frank Elias

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A photograph of Frank Elias in the East Anglian Magazine from the late 1930s.A photograph of Frank Elias in the East Anglian Magazine from the late 1930s.

The summer of 1916 and soldiers of The Suffolk Regiment’s cyclist battalion find themselves sent to France and into the heart of the action. Fifty men go in the June and another 200 the following month. They make their mark.

A battalion bulletin issued in the middle of September records a general’s appreciation for the men from the cyclist battalion who had helped swell the ranks of the 7th Suffolks at a time of urgent need.

“They arrived in the middle of operations” – the long Battle of the Somme had started on July 1 – “and are considered the best men they ever had, well trained, with great hearts in them,” says the commanding officer. Before long, two lieutenants of the cyclist battalion have written a song to mark this tribute. It’s dedicated to “All the officers and men of The Suffolk Regiment who have given their lives for their country and to those dear ones in whose hearts they still live”.

Frank Elias, a journalist and author who had lived in Essex, writes the words. Colleague Hubert Middleton (his achievements include being organist and choirmaster at Ely Cathedral) is behind the music.

In Suffolk, as it’s called, is published as sheet music by Weekes & Co of London and goes on sale for two shillings. It’s not the first creative enterprise in which Frank Elias has had a hand since putting on a uniform. The previous December, he’d been involved in producing the “C.B.” – the “amusing and well-edited” Christmas Bulletin of the 2/6th Cyclist Battalion.

He contributed a skit called The Spy – about a village postmistress who reads a postcard “by accident” and raises the alarm after believing she’s rumbled a German plot.

There were echoes – slight ones – of something Frank did earlier. He’d penned an adventure novel called The Mine Detector – “A tale of the east coast” that was based in Suffolk and published in 1915. Set in the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of war, it’s about an orphaned teenager called Tom. He meets an inventor whose fantastic creations include a car that can leap over walls thanks to a massive spring that propels it, and a device that identifies mines.

Tom gets a job with the inventor, and is charged with keeping his eyes peeled for spies. The adventure is set in the fictional town of Orton, which is in Suffolk, close to the Norfolk border.

The book – and author Elias – came to the attention fairly recently of Jeff Taylor, a retired archaeologist and museum curator now living in Ipswich. A fan of under-rated East Anglian literature since moving to the region in 2000, he was pointed in the direction of The Mine Detector during a visit to a Wymondham bookshop. Jeff liked what he read. “I wouldn’t really want to give away the story but it’s a bit HG Wells-like and a bit John Buchan-like,” he says. (Buchan wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps.) As it contains details about the early stages of the First World War, Jeff thinks it must have been written at the end of 1914.

“It’s a period piece, but I think that even if it were published today you’d want to know what happens. It’s got some good characters; it’s well-written. He’s actually a good writer, Frank Elias, and did 30-odd books in all, I think.”

It was published originally by The Religious Tract Society, “so there’s a moral there in the story”.

Oddly enough, the edition Jeff bought for a couple of pounds was not the 1915 version but one published in 1940 and set during the Second World War – pretty much the same story but with key details changed to reflect the times.

Intrigued, he later managed to get quite cheaply a copy of that original book, and wondered “Well, who is this guy?”

Matters came to a head when Jeff proposed giving a talk as part of this summer’s Felixstowe Book Festival – which he is doing. His chosen topic is The First World War in East Anglian Fiction. The conflict, he says, had a presence in local writing almost as soon as hostilities began and it continues today with authors and illustrators such as Pakefield’s Michael Foreman.

Frank Elias was obviously part of this heritage, but Jeff realised very little was known about him. So, he started digging. Jeff’s background helped him piece together some of the author’s story, and he’s grateful for the help of Suffolk Regiment Museum curator Gwyn Thomas in supplying military details and the words and music of the song.

Frank was born in 1878. The census of 1881 has him living in Liverpool, the city where his family was rooted. His father, William, was a builder. In 1901 Frank, then 22, was an apprentice to a cotton broker.

A rather flowery pamphlet in Suffolk Record Office – dating from 1932, probably – says that after leaving school “For five years he went in and out of Liverpool cotton offices and moved in a world which, though rich in adventure, had not been explored by the novelist till John Owen (Elias’s pseudonym for, generally, his adult audience) wrote his first novel, The Cotton Broker.

That book – out in 1921, the year he moved to Felixstowe – attracted attention not only in England but America. But Frank had been both on the move and writing well before that.

It seems that after those five years in the cotton business he’d said goodbye to commerce and thrown himself into literature and journalism. Frank certainly moved south – perhaps wanting to be closer to the woman who in 1905 would become his wife. Edith Morrice was born in Lancashire, the daughter of a ships’ chandler and niece of a Lord High Mayor of Liverpool. She became an assistant teacher at a private school in Huntingdonshire and an author of some note, her range stretching from fairy tales to histories of polar expeditions.

The 1906 Kelly’s Directory records Frank as a journalist in Essex. By then he’d written The Political Advertiser (fiction) and a few years later would pen The Right Hon HH Asquith MP.

The 1911 census places him at Epping. Over the next few years he wrote quasi travel books such as The Far East and The Gorgeous East, and A Boy’s Adventures In The South Seas.

Then came war.

Gwyn Thomas’s research shows Frank being commissioned into The Suffolk Regiment in the summer of 1915. He joined the 6th Cyclist Battalion. We can’t say exactly where Frank went, but a book called the History of the Suffolk Regiment 1914-1927, by Lt Col CCR Murphy, explains that the 2/6th Battalion was raised in September, 1914, as a result of a recruitment campaign in Suffolk promoted by Lt Col WT Pretty and Captain W Rowley Elliston.

The first groups assembled at the engineering works of Richard Garrett and Sons Ltd in Leiston. Towards the end of October the battalion moved to Ipswich and stayed in engine-works – men sleeping on oily floors, among the huge machines, and with only two blankets each.

Details of Frank’s military career appear lost in the mists of time, although there’s little doubt he was sent to France, and it seems unlikely he would have written the song had he not been there.

His medal index card shows he served with the 7th Battalion, which implies he would have seen significant action. Frank was awarded The Allied Victory Medal and The British War Medal.

Perhaps not everything is shrouded by the passage of history, though. Jeff Taylor reckons one of Frank’s fictional stories is actually based on the soldier’s wartime experiences. For the moment, Jeff’s keeping mum, but promises to reveal all at his talk in Felixstowe next weekend. Certainly he feels there’s enough circumstantial evidence to suggest Frank was at the heart of some of the significant battles

Frank was demobbed early in 1919. The origin of his Suffolk links is not known – how did The Mine Detector come to be set in the county, for instance? – but he and Edith moved to Felixstowe in 1921 and there they stayed until his death in 1949.

Their home for most of the 1920s and ’30s was most likely Red Bank, in Gainsborough Road. They became part of the community and wrote many books.

That pamphlet in Suffolk Record Office described “John Owen” as extremely tall and massively built, with eyes that twinkle humorously behind his glasses. He had a boyish shyness.

“He prefers the quiet life and lives mainly at Felixstowe in the summer and at Mentone” – possibly a London hotel – “during winter,” said the writer.

“He’s a great walker, and also enjoyed the exercise from riding a pushbike. His favourite form of sport is swimming, though, and in the right weather he goes in the sea two or three times a day.”

An edition of the East Anglian Magazine profiled “John Owen” as part of its series on East Anglian authors.

“His first Suffolk novel appeared in 1926. In the year previous he had visited Newbourn (sic) with his friend the late WH Helm and saw the grave of the Suffolk giant. The inscription on the stone made a great impression on him and he then wrote his novel The Giant of Oldborne. [It was about an abnormally-tall local man who effectively became part of a freak show.]

“The book is an entirely imaginary reconstruction of the giant’s story – as the dedication makes clear. But the legend on the tombstone is the foundation of the book. ‘In loving memory of the Suffolk Giant… He was exhibited in most parts of the country but he makes his best exhibition in the presence of his Blessed Redeemer.’”

The Shepherd and the Child also had a Suffolk background. It was very popular, being translated into German and making an impression in America, said the magazine, though the title that perhaps made most impact was The Running Footman.

“He says that he has many reasons for being fond of Suffolk. Not the least of these is the access it gives him to the North Sea. John Owen is a powerful swimmer and for a good part of the year has an hour’s swim daily. His only criticism of the water is that it isn’t always rough enough.”

Frank was 70 when he collapsed and died during a morning service at St George’s Presbyterian Church, Felixstowe, on January 2, 1949. His brother, Charles, had died six days earlier on Merseyside, according to an obituary in the EADT. By that stage the Eliases were living at The White House, High Road East. Both were religious, Frank having served on the church’s board of management and lending his grounds for church garden parties.

The tribute says he was a well-known figure in the town. Some of his stories had references to Gyppeswick and Stowe, the latter an abbreviation for Felixstowe. Frank was also a member of Felixstowe Music and Arts Society.

He was buried on January 6. “The weird thing is that Edith wasn’t at the funeral. Her sister was,” says Jeff. “Maybe Edith was so shocked, or maybe she wasn’t very well. She died about three years later, in Liverpool.”

The couple had no children, as far as we know.

Frank’s estate of about £30,000 went mostly to Edith, and his sister-in-law. He also gave £1,000 to the United Society for Christian Literature and the National Book Festival – the income to be offered each year as a prize for a children’s book demonstrating imaginative qualities.

Jeff will also deliver his talk at the Norwich Record Office in August, to coincide with the start of a Great War exhibition there, and there will be at least one other Suffolk date later in 2014; but the Felixstowe Book Festival will be its debut outing.

Frank Elias will of course only be one of the East Anglian authors mentioned in his talk, but Jeff hopes he can do something to put Frank’s work back in the public eye.

“There’s a lot more to him than you would imagine. One of the things I’ve been thinking is that he was almost an ‘unknown soldier’ and, today, virtually an unknown author.

“I almost feel I know these people. It’s weird. It’s almost like a personal connection. And you want to promote them for that reason.”

Jeff Taylor’s talk “The First World War in East Anglian Fiction” takes place on Saturday, June 28, from 5pm to 6pm, as part of Felixstowe Book Festival. It’s at His Lordship’s Library, The Orwell Hotel. Tickets are £6 (£4 concessions). www.felixstowebookfestival.co.uk
Single tickets can also be bought from Felixstowe Tourist Information Office in person, by phone and via email − 91 Undercliff Road West; 01394 276770; ftic@suffolkcoastal.gov.uk

• Jeff Taylor hopes to hear the song “In Suffolk” be performed before too long. He muses that it quite possibly hasn’t been sung since the end of the Great War.

Here is the first verse, written by Frank Elias.

In Suffolk, then, the poppies fired

The yellow corn that crowned the rise; In Suffolk, then, the lark aspired

To link my soul with Paradise:

How often Bury’s hopeful spire

I saw in June’s untroubled morn;

How oft I linger’d to admire

And praise my Suffolk’s day new-born.

• Frank Elias’s titles included: The Shadow on the School, 1922; North Sea Spy, 1939; Blitz Hero, 1942; Beach Mystery, 1946, and Suffolk Madman, 1946.

• While living in the north, Frank Elias would often make midnight cycle rides from Liverpool to London – about 200 miles – which he’d cover in less than 20 hours.

• Edith Elias’s books included Elsie Lockhart, 3rd Form Girl, 1925; Deanholme: A Public-School Story for Girls, 1926; The Book of Polar Exploration, 1930, and This England of Ours.

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