Prolific English writer Edgar Wallace was born 1 April 1875 in Greenwich, London. Wallace’s family had been in show business and his mother worked in the theatre as a stagehand, usherette and bit-part actress until she married in 1867. His father Joseph was a Merchant NavyCaptain. When Mary was eight months pregnant, in January 1868, her husband, Joseph Richards died at sea. After the birth, destitute, Mary took to the stage, assuming the stage name “Polly” Richards. In 1872, Polly met and joined the Marriott family theatre troupe, managed by Mrs. Alice Edgar, her husband Richard Edgar and their three adult children, Grace Edgar, Adeline Edgar and Richard Horatio Edgar. Richard Horatio Edgar and Polly ended up having a “broom cupboard” style sexual encounter during an after-show party. Discovering she was pregnant, she stayed at a Boarding House, because unmarried mothers were frowned upon in those days. Her midwife introduced Polly to her close friend, Mrs Freeman, a mother of ten children, whose husband George Freeman was a Billingsgate fishmonger. Wallace, then known as Richard Horatio Edgar Freeman, had a happy childhood, forming a close bond with 20-year-old Clara Freeman who became a second mother to him. By 1878, Polly could no longer afford the small sum she had been paying the Freemans to care for her son and instead of placing the boy in the workhouse, the Freemans adopted him. His foster-father George Freeman was determined to ensure Richard received a good education and for some time Wallace attended St. Alfege with St. Peter’s, a boarding school in Peckham,however he played truant and left full-time education at 12.
Wallace had held down numerous jobs such as newspaper-seller at Ludgate Circus near Fleet Street, milk-delivery boy, rubber factory worker, shoe shop assistant and ship’s cook. A plaque at Ludgate Circus commemorates Wallace’s first encounter with the newspaper business. He was dismissed from his job on the milk run for stealing money.In 1894, he became engaged to a local Deptford girl, Edith Anstree, but broke the engagement, enlisting in the Infantry. Wallace registered in the army at 21 under the adopted the name Edgar Wallace, taken from the author of Ben-Hur, Lew Wallace. He was posted in South Africa with the West Kent Regiment. in 1896 He transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps, and transferred again to the Press Corps. Between 1898 and 1902 Wallace began publishing songs and poetry, inspired by Rudyard Kipling, whom he met in Cape Town in 1898. Wallace’s first book of ballads, The Mission that Failed! was published that same year. In 1899, he turned to writing full-time and became a war correspondent during the Second Boer War for Reuters and the Daily Mail. In 1901, while in South Africa, Wallace married Ivy Maude Caldecott sadly though Their daughter Eleanor Clare Hellier Wallace died from meningitis in 1903 and they returned to London, deep in debt. Wallace found work at the the Mail in London and began writing thrillers and detective stories in a bid to earn quick money. A son, Bryan, was born in 1904 followed by a daughter, Patricia in 1908. Unable to find a publisher, Wallace set up his own publishing company, Tallis Press, and published the thriller The Four Just Men (1905). Despite promotion in the Mail and good sales, the book was financially mismanaged and Problems were compounded when inaccuracies in Wallace’s reporting led to libel cases being brought against the Mail and Wallace was dismissed in 1907,
In 1907 Edgar travelled to the Congo Free State, to report on atrocities committed against the Congolese under King Leopold II of Belgium and the Belgian rubber companies, in which up to 15 million Congolese were killed. Wallace was invited to serialise stories inspired by his experiences. These were published as his first collection Sanders of the River (1911), which was adapted into a film with the same name, starring Paul Robeson. Wallace went on to publish 11 more similar collections (102 stories). They were tales of exotic adventure and local tribal rites, set on an African river. Between 1908 to 1932 Wallace wrote many more books including detective stories, adventure stories, science fiction and thrillers. The success of his books restored his reputation as a journalist. he then began reporting from horse racing circles. He wrote for the Week-End and the Evening News, becoming an editor for Week-End Racing Supplement and started his own racing papers Bibury’s and R. E. Walton’s Weekly. Unfortunately he lost thousands gambling and Ivy divorced him and moved to Tunbridge Wells with the children Wallace married his secretary Ethel Violet King, the daughter of banker Frederick King, in 1921 and their daughter Penelope Wallace was born in 1923.
Wallace signed with publishers Hodder and Stoughton, and organising his contracts, instead of selling the rights in order to raise funds. This allowed him advances, royalties and full scale promotional campaigns for his books. He became know as the, ‘King of Thrillers’, writing across many genres including science fiction, screen plays, a non-fiction ten-volume history of the First World War. He went on to write over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and 957 short stories. Wallace also served as chairman of the Press Club, which continues to present an annual ‘Edgar Wallace Award’ for excellence in writing. Following the great success of his novel The Ringer, Wallace was appointed chairman of the British Lion Film Corporation. Wallace was the first British crime novelist to use policemen as his protagonists, rather than amateur sleuths as most other writers of the time did. Most of his novels are independent stand-alone stories; he seldom used series heroes. In 1923, Edgar Wallace became the first British radio sports reporter, when he made a report on the Epsom Derby for the British Broadcasting Company. In the 1920’sWallace wrote a controversial article entitled “The Canker In Our Midst” about paedophilia and the show business world. Wallace also joined the Liberal Party and contested Blackpool in the 1931 general election as one of a handful of Independent Liberals, who rejected the National Government, and the official Liberal support for it, and strongly supported free trade.
In 1931 he went to America and wrote the screenplay for the first sound film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1932) produced by Gainsborough Pictures.Moving to Hollywood, he began working as a “script doctor” for RKO. His play, The Green Pack opened to excellent reviews, boosting his status even further. Wallace wanted to get his own work on Hollywood celluloid, adapting books such as The Four Just Men and Mr J G Reeder. Wallace’s play On the Spot, written about gangster Al Capone, also became a huge success and launched the career of Charles Laughton who played the lead Capone character Tony Perelli. In December 1931, Wallace was assigned work on the RKO “gorilla picture” (King Kong, 1933) for producer Merian C. Cooper. However he started having sudden, severe headaches and was diagnosed with diabetes. Unfortunately His condition deteriorated within days and Edgar slipped into a coma and died of the condition, combined with double pneumonia, on 10 February 1932 in North Maple Drive, Beverly Hills.