George Newnes was a businessman with a great flair for publicity and also a publisher, most notably of The Strand where Conan Doyle published his Sherlock Holmes stories. In 1881 he founded Tit-Bits magazine, a miscellany which coupled human interest stories culled from other publications with works of fiction either supplied by their own readers or writers such as Rider Haggard (it serialised She) and Isaac Asimov. P G Wodehouse had his first humorous article, Men who missed their own weddings, accepted by Tit-Bits. The magazine had a highly personal style, one of the first publications to address its readers familiarly, rather than formally. Tit-Bits had an inclusive dialogue with its readers, answered their questions exhaustively, accepted their stories for publication and became the most popular penny paper of its day.

Newnes had innovative schemes to increase circulation. In November 1883 he offered a seven-roomed house worth £500 as a prize for the Christmas competition (prizes were typically a guinea). This prize appealed to his upper working/lower middle class, commuting, salary (not wage) earning, ‘self-helping’ readership. The competition was for the best Christmas story (in 3,000 words of prose or verse) ‘open to every one of our readers irrespective of age, sex, nationality or colour’. The story did not have to have a Christmas theme, it did not even have to be original, it could have been previously published.

Newnes reasoned that this opened the competition up to every single reader, not just those who were writers. Tit-Bits answered dozens of queries about the competition terms and conditions in a Q & A column: can you enter more than once? yes; do you have to live in the town you choose for the house? no; are there any conveyancing costs? no; can I have a cash equivalent? no; is the prize actually a dolls’ house? no. The magazine sold about 450,000 copies a week and some 22,000 competition entries were received, some containing up to 20 stories. Conan Doyle entered the competition and was so irritated when he didn’t win that he offered Newnes a bet: his entry and the winning entry would be submitted to an impartial judge. If his story was deemed the better he would win £25, if not Conan Doyle would pay Newnes £25. The editor chose not to reply. Joseph Conrad also wrote a short story, The Black Mate, for the competition.

Interestingly, the magazine did not buy a house beforehand then offer it as a prize but instead allowed the winner to choose their own from anywhere in the UK. The only stipulations were that the house had to be in a town of more than 200,000 inhabitants, it was to be called ‘Tit-Bits Villa’ and it should be detached or semi-detached (‘otherwise the name of villa would not be appropriate’). The week before the winner was announced readers were urged to buy two copies of the magazine, one to read and one to put away for posterity, ‘as copies will be at a premium in the future’.

The winning story, Miss Wilmer’s Adventure, was published in the Christmas edition on 22 December. It was originally written by Max Adeler and had been published by Ward, Lock five years earlier but submitted by the winning contestant, Private William Robert Mellish. Max Adeler was the pen name of Charles Heber Clark, an American writer, music critic, humourist and director of the firm Johnson & Johnson, whose work was wildly popular at the time. It wasn’t the only time Clark was ‘plagiarised’: he accused Mark Twain of copying his work and Twain accused him back in a long running feud.

The magazine gave a full account of the judging process and pre-empted criticism such as ‘That’s not worth a seven-roomed house’ or ‘The author should have the use of the house, not the man who has simply copied it out of a book’. For ‘the satisfaction of unsuccessful competitors’ Newnes reminded readers, the competition was specifically designed to be open to every Tit-Bits buyer, not just ‘clever literary men’. Of course, the rebuttals also had the advantage of drawing attention to the prize and the magazine even more. The judges complained that the 22,000 entries were ‘on the whole a very poor lot indeed’. Somebody had sent in a meticulously sealed registered letter which actually contained nothing - the judges said they ‘wished there had been more like that’. Even Mellish’s winning entry was a ‘disappointment’ to them.

Mellish was given a week to say in what part of the UK he would like his house to be and that was announced with due ceremony in the magazine. Then he had another week to choose several houses from which Tit-Bits would select one to be bought. This was to avoid ‘unscrupulous’ price-hiking by the vendor. Mellish chose London and the following week the magazine reported the purchase (direct from the builder) with details of the solicitors involved, the costs (all covered by Tit-Bits) and reiterations of how everything had been done above board - the magazine offered ‘a whole street of houses’ to anyone who could find fault with the competition or transaction. Then on 12th January 1884, in an excitable full page of coverage, readers learnt the villa’s address: 15 Southville Park Villas (now 101 East Dulwich Grove), ‘an excellent villa residence adjoining the Dulwich College Estate and recently erected by Messrs Cooper and Kendall of Champion Hill’. It seems that the magazine did not expect the winner to live in the house as when it gave details of the price paid it also announced that it had protected Mr Mellish from loss of tenancy by guaranteeing a rent of £40 p.a. (including £8 10s ground rent payable) for five years. It also stated that the house was well designed to minister to the comforts of Private Mellish’s tenants.

The villa was offered as a kind of ‘ideal home’ designed to appeal to aspirational Tit-Bits readers who were usually of the clerical class, and they were all invited to visit: ‘alighting at Champion Hill station, a short walk brings us in sight of [it]. Passing by several of these elegant homes we come to the renowned Tit-Bits Villa, a house celebrated wherever the English language is spoken’. It was described as ‘within 3 minutes walk of Champion Hill station’ (now East Dulwich) fifteen minutes walk from the Greyhound at Dulwich and two miles from the Crystal Palace. The house is described as having eight rooms plus bathroom, scullery and cellars. A description of the interior invited readers to enter a fully furnished and decorated home, though in fact at that stage the house was unoccupied and empty.

We are invited through the front door into the hall, to admire the lofty dining room with noble bay window looking on to Dulwich Grove and to the adjoining room which ‘a vulgar person might call a back sitting room’ but Tit-Bits preferred to call a ‘bijou drawing room’, the kind of room that the author of Home Sweet Home was thinking of when he composed ‘those immortal lines’. The florid description runs like this for a third of a page, noting that ‘All the furniture and appointments are in the most exquisite taste. (NB There is no furniture at the moment but if there were it would be in the most exquisite taste)’. All this was part of appealing to the magazine’s readers and Newnes was not above sentimentality of the most Victorian kind. When we are invited upstairs to see the bedrooms we are told we can see the Trossachs even though we are not in Scotland, as the builder of the houses behind Tit-Bits Villa has been inspired by the ‘loveliness of the district’ to call his road Trossachs Road.

There was a public ceremony at the house where the keys were handed over after Private Mellish had been formally asked, in the presence of witnesses, if he was happy to accept his prize. He was then photographed outside the front door, the editor first having trespassed on the kindness of the neighbours to borrow curtains and flowerpots to make the house look lived-in, though Newnes rather subverts the illusion by telling his readers exactly what he borrowed and why. The neighbours were happy to play along because they appreciated ‘the honour of having Tit-Bits Villa in their midst’. The actual taking of the photograph is described using military imagery. Private Mellish shows a countenance as undaunted as his comrades at Balaclava, facing the formidable battery without flinching, just like a true British soldier. One feels it was a delight for Newnes that a humble soldier (always described as ‘Private Mellish’) had won the prize: so suitable for presenting to Tit-Bits readers, so deserving of the good fortune. Tit-Bits arranged for some of Mellish’s fellow ‘brave defenders’ to visit their comrade’s house. Only a cynic would wonder if the winner was chosen with an eye to the later marketing.

Newnes used this image of Mellish and his prize well. He didn’t publish it in the magazine, instead he described it and then sold it to his readers for 3d or 3½d p&p. However, readers must not expect to receive the image by return of post as ‘this is the largest order known since the introduction of the photographic art’. 100,000 photographs were sold which even then did not meet demand (allegedly).

When Tit-Bits reported on the large numbers of visitors to the house the magazine described the ‘lively appearance’ of Dulwich Grove and the visitors arriving by train and by vehicles ‘from the coster’s cart to the four-in-hand brake’. It intimated (presumably with tongue firmly in cheek) that there was talk of special trains being put on to cope with demand (it also reminded readers that the competition had generated an extra £200 revenue for the General Post Office). One day the crush to see the house was so great that people didn’t wait for the door to be unlocked but broke it down and also broke in through the bay windows. Tit-Bits then had to pay someone to guard the house. Newnes slightly glossed over this vandalism, noticing instead that once inside readers conducted themselves with propriety, ‘as subscriber to Tit-Bits is only another name for respectability’. The magazine reminded readers unable to reach Dulwich that the photograph was still available for purchase, in some ways better than visiting the house as not only is ‘the winner seen standing in the porch’ but he is ‘in the uniform of his regiment’.

Surprisingly Newnes did not prolong the story for as long as you might imagine, an extra 10,000 readers (or 2%) a week over the period of the competition would have covered his costs and any further circulation increase would have been profit. He believed a story could run its course and then make way for ‘some other novelty’. However, there was room in February for a related competition, asking for parodies on the theme of the Tit-Bits Villa. 682 entries were received, though ‘scarcely as humorous as we anticipated’. The winner was a parody on The House that Jack Built and the magazine was at pains to point out that it disapproved of the line ‘These are the black looks by losers worn’.

Private Mellish wrote to the magazine thanking correspondents for the large number of congratulatory letters and books, which ‘I shall value as long as I live’. The letter also assured all ‘doubting friends’ that the prize was genuine: he would happily answer their letters himself but there are so many that he has not time and anyway, they mostly forget to enclose stamps for a reply.

William Robert Mellish was born in 1857 in Chertsey, Surrey and his father was a baker. William’s own first job was a shop boy for a grocer but aged 18 he joined the 8th Hussars at Aldershot as a private, where he put his trade as baker. While in the army he did not see service overseas and was stationed in Aldershot, Hounslow and Canterbury. In 1881 he married Emma Parfitt and they lived in barracks in Canterbury. Mellish was 27 years old with one child when he won the house in January 1884. By May 1884 he was discharged into the army reserves having served 8 years and just missing an unpleasant and dangerous posting to Afghanistan which began for his comrades in the December. He was assessed as having a ‘regular very good temperament’ on discharge. One assumes the discharge was in response to winning the house. He does not seem to have any connection with Dulwich and may simply have chosen the house as one most likely to give him a good return.

Mellish never lived in Tit-Bits Villa but either sold or rented it. Either way it enabled him to set up as a baker as in July 1884 he bought into the firm of ‘baker and confectioner, provider of refreshments and provisions’ at Woodfield House, aka Frederick Felton’s Bakery and Tea Rooms in Ashtead. Woodfield House on Ashtead Common served as the village bakery but also a tea house and caterers. It was a popular destination for the crowds of Londoners who came to play and picnic on the Common and 2,500 people could be seated in its marquees and refreshment rooms. By the turn of the century he had nine children, some of whom were working with him, a baker’s assistant and a general servant. Things went well for him, the business expanded and won prizes in competitions.

Mellish died in August 1924 aged 67 at the London Hospital for diseases of the heart, though he was still living at Woodfield House. Probate was granted to his daughter Violet Winifred Perry and he left £10,151, a large amount and testament to the way he had not wasted his windfall.

Search

Tweets

Around Dulwich

autumn-newsletter-010.jpg

Who's Online

We have 110 guests and no members online

The Dulwich Society - Registered under the Charities Act 1960, Number 234192

Our objects are to create the sense of community that one would hope to find in a good village, to increase awareness of local history and the character that make Dulwich special, to foster an appreciation of open spaces and trees, to introduce the people who live and work here to each other, and to help them to enjoy the atmosphere and life of Dulwich.

Go to top