Famous as the author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson is less well known as an early war gamer.
His role as ” grandfather” or “great uncle” in the history of wargaming (depending where you place H.G. Wells) was acknowledged by “father of the modern wargame” Donald Featherstone in his book War Games (1962), a book that began the hobby careers of so many of us.
Reading Donald Featherstone’s War Games (1962) again, I came across references to the origin of H. G. Wells’ Little Wars when he demonstrated his ideas for the book in his publisher Frank Palmer’s office.
Little Wars was a seminal and special book for Featherstone as he often claimed to be the only British tanker or squaddie who went off to WW2 with a copy of it in his kitbag, leaving his lead figures behind to perish in the Blitz.
The recent reprint of Little Wars by Peter Dennis with beautiful print and cut out 54mm figures in his PaperBoys series (Helion) featured Peter’s own take on these early games in his house. It could almost be that scene in a Frank Palmer’s office! As a lovely touch by Peter Dennis, the gent on the left in the straw boater is the late Wargames magazine editor Stuart Asquith, champion of the revival of 54mm gaming and Little Wars.
An R. Thurston Hopkins is mentioned by Featherstone as being at this Little Wars event. I know G.K. Chesterton had also been around as part of this process towards publishing Little Wars.
John Curry at the History of Wargaming Project has recently reprinted Little Wars in his volume on the Early Wargaming Pioneers
Who was this R. Thurston Hopkins?
There is not much published information in him beyond his ghost hunting books, and I have found no photo so far, so I have done a little digging around,
Robert Thurston Hopkins was a bank cashier and English writer, who was born in 1884, lived mostly in London and Sussex and died in 1958.
He wrote mostly about the English countryside, ghosts and literary biographies of H. G. Wells, Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling. His son was the photojournalist (Godfrey) Thurston Hopkins (1913-2014).
The same year that Frank Palmer published Little Wars, Robert Thurston Hopkins published his first book, topically on Oscar Wilde (1913). He also published a book on Wilde in 1916. I wonder if this was the book he was discussing with Frank Palmer, although I believe it was eventually published by another publisher.
Wilde had died a few years earlier and would still have been a scandalous and controversial figure at the time.
This was the first of the literary biographies or commentaries that Thurston Hopkins published, eventually adding Kipling and H.G. Wells himself to the list.
In his 1922 book on H.G. Wells., Thurston Hopkins compares the ‘Peterpantheism’ or eternal boyhood of Wells with that of Robert Louis Stevenson, not always favourably I feel in RLS’ case. Like Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson was another early ‘War gamer’ with his toy soldiers.
A copy of his book H.G. Wells: Personalty, Character, Topography (1922) can be found free on Archive.Org:
Anyway, a little glimpse into the period that H.G. Wells created Little Wars.
Robert Thurston Hopkins was a passing player to the birth or publishing of Little Wars and the slow spread of wargaming beyond the Kriegspiel played by the military.
A little more about Robert Thurston Hopkins, bank clerk, author and ‘ghost hunter’
A literary man with some military experience was accidentally present at the birth of Little Wars.
Robert Thurston Hopkins was born on 12 July 1883 or early 1884 in Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk (noted in 1911 Census as Thetford on the Norfolk / Suffolk border) into a family of Furniture Brokers. His father Frederick Hopkins was born in London c. 1848, his mother Mary in Norfolk in 1850.
In the 1901 Census his father appears to have died, his brothers running the Furniture business. Robert is listed as a bank clerk. However his WW1 records note that he had previously served in the 2nd County of London City Imperial Yeomanry, buying himself out (‘discharge by purchase’) c. 1904/5. (This may have covered the period of or immediate aftermath of the Boer War.)
Having continued work as a bank clerk, by the 1911 Census he is listed as a visitor on census night at the house of Robert Godfrey Bately, a surgeon in practice of Gorleston, Norfolk. This is not a surprise, as in 1912 he married the daughter of the family, Sybil Beatrice Bately (born c. 1887?). He was living at 21
1913 – The year Little Wars and Thurston Hopkins first book was published, Robert and Sybil had their only son.
Their son, Godfrey Thurston Hopkins (S. London, 16 April 1913 – 26 October 2014) became a press photographer before and after WW2. His photographs were used in some of his father’s books. He went on to serve in WW2 with the RAF Photographic Unit https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thurston_Hopkins
Thurston the son went to school near Burwash, Sussex near where Kipling lived, another literary figure from the Wells era that his father Robert Thurston Hopkins wrote about.
In 1915 Robert and his family were living at 21 Westdown Road, Catford, London. In December 1915 Robert Thurston Hopkins volunteered for the Army, joining the ASC Army Service Corps (Motor Transport) section. His service records note as the occupation the words ‘Bank Clerk’ but also ‘Motorcyclist’ and ‘Lorry’ (2). Having signed up he then spent December 1915 to March 1916 in the Army Reserve.
Presumably he had an interest in transport or a driving licence that helped his topographical or travel books about England.
His bank clerk and authorial skills led to him rising in WW1 from Private M2/167077 to Company Quarter Master Sergeant, Army Service Corps serving at home throughout 1916/17 and from October 1917 to September 1919 (theatre 4A) Egypt with 1010 M.T. Co. Here he ended up hospitalised and discharged from hospital in September 1919 for two months with a carbuncle, a condition aggravated by the climate of Cairo / Egypt.
As a CQMS his character was by his O/C (Officer Commanding) described as Sober, Very Reliable, Very Intelligent and Thoroughly Trustworthy and Conscientious.
He was demobilised on 18 January 1920 as a CQMS.
On 21 December 1920 he re-enlisted for 3 years service in the 28th Battalion County of London Regiment (Artists Rifles) Territorial Force until no longer needed on 29 November 1922.
After his WW1 service he returned to writing (and possibly his bank clerk role).
In the 1920s electoral registers, he and Sybil are living in (possible apartments in) No. 21, Sillwood Place, Brighton.
By the 1939 wartime census he is listed as Bank Clerk and author (retired), living with wife Sybil and son Godfrey (by then a photographer) near the sea at Portslade in Sussex, near Brighton and Hove. Unusually, despite his CQMS experience in WW1, the 55 year old Robert Thurston Hopkins is not listed at the time as involved in ARP or Civil Defence as is sometimes recorded in the 1939 Census.
He died on 23 May 1958, survived by his wife Sybil and son Thurston.
His science fiction or supernatural works (books, articles, stories) are listed here with a gap during WW1 after 1916 to the early 1920s.
As a follow up to my recent post about The Toy Theatre and my 54mm figures inspired by this Emily Dutton advent calendar toy theatre, I wanted to photograph on stage my own paper Soldiers. These were quickly produced for my roughed out Suffra Graffiti game, inspired by those Wellsian Little Wars figures of Peter Dennis.
Fans of the Toy Theatre read like a Who’s Who of early Wargamers. I am curious about this overlap and what it offers us in gaming today.
I have been rereading “Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured“, a well known essay by Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) about the influence of the toy theatre on him as a child. It is available free online via archive.org here at:
” [RLS] Louis and cousin Bob had mastered the art of toy theater as boys. As a married man, age 30, in 1881, RLS was doing it again in Switzerland, after his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, age 11, had come into possession of a toy theater — “a superb affair costing upwards of 20 pounds that had been given me on the death of the poor lad who had whiled away his dying hours with it at the Belvedere,” a hotel in the health resort town of Davos. Lloyd continues: “He painted scenery for my toy theatre and helped me to give performances and slide the actors in and out of their tin stands, as well as imitating galloping horses, or screaming screams for the heroine in distress.”
“Stevenson wasn’t Pollock’s only interesting customer. G.K. Chesterton’s passion for the hobby rivalled Stevenson’s. Chesterton saw the toy theater as a microcosm of the cosmos, where everything can be examined under the spotlight of a miniature stage, where good and evil are starkly contrasted in bright colors and dramatic scripts. Winston Churchill was a big fan of the little stage, too. He bought his stuff at H.J. Webb, an offshoot of Pollock’s …”
Churchill’s favourite toy theatre play The Miller and His Men apparently had a stirring “No Surrender” speech that may have influenced his later speeches and attitude. I have recently bought a repro copy of this Pollock play, characters and scenery from the Old Pen Shop online and look forward to reading it.
“The Miller and His Men” was mentioned by RLS along with another title which I also purchased, the uncoloured Waterloo scenes for the Toy Theatre or Juvenile Drama from the same source.
* Update: Derek Cooper pointed out in the comments that the Wargames / Toy Theatre link continues with Warrior Miniatures in Glasgow also producing toy theatres and plays including Waterloo, Inkerman, Balaklava and Alma battles and Skelt pieces that RLS would recognise https://www.toytheatregallery.com
Pollock’s shop, sited at Covent Garden for a hundred years, still remains and they do online sales / mail order.
RLS was a fan of Pollock’s toy theatres and Benjamin Pollock was a fan of RLS. Another interesting overlap.
There is lots of interesting overlap between wargames and toy theatre. I also associate Toy Theatre with convalescence, probably due to E. Nesbit, author of The City in The Library with its toy soldiers, who was also the author of The Railway Children which has a great Toy Theatre scene in the 1970s film.
Alan Gruber at the Duchy of Tradgardland blog has also been musing over this Toy Theatre idea of wargaming. I suggested in the comments that:
“There is an element of framing, set dressing, assembling the protagonists or characters, behaving in the beginning in preset ways to set plans (take the ridge, cover the bridge, advance and occupy the town) etc and then each of the scenes making up the acts (beginning, middle, end?)”
The link is very clear when you consider the changing backdrops and changing scenery between games (or acts).
One overlap or connection may be that The Toy Theatre, real live theatre, TV drama, fiction and gaming are all things which allow us to play out strategy and “what if”, changing the variables of a scenario to affect the outcomes, without anyone getting hurt.
As mentioned in my opening paragraph, the fans of the toy theatre read like a “Who’s Who” of early wargaming – RLS, Chesterton, Churchill. I wondered if H G Wells was involved? Certainly Floor Games and Little Wars have a charming theatrical invention of worlds and theatre sets.
A little research on Board Game Geek reveals that Chesterton and Wells both appear to have devised together satirical toy theatre plays on current or recent events. Chesterton’ auto biography in 1936 reveals this larkish attitude by Wells:
“What I have always liked about [H.G.] Wells is his vigorous and unaffected readiness for a lark. He was one of the best men in the world with whom to start a standing joke; though perhaps he did not like it to stand too long after it was started. I remember we worked a toy-theatre together with a pantomime about Sidney Webb.”
Chesterton’s biographer Masie Ward notes that the pair: “They built too a toy theatre at Easton and among other things dramatized the minority report of the Poor Law Commission. The play began by the Commissioners taking to pieces Bumble the Beadle, putting him into a huge cauldron and stewing him. Then out from the cauldron leaped a renewed rejuvenated Bumble several sizes larger than when he went in.”
Having lost soldiers in my childhood garden and found others on the beach recently, I am fascinated by these lost and found soldiers out on an “unending mission”.
Occasionally lost toy soldier figures turn up on online auction sites amongst the hoards and hordes of metal detecting trinket sites.
I spotted this interesting collection from a metal detectorist called Frank in the Southeast of England on offer for a couple of pounds. I asked if they were from one hoard or toy mass battlefield burial but they were apparently collected over many years and many sites.
Whilst I wait for some recast arms to arrive from Dorset Soldiers for my current Broken Britains restoration projects, I have been busy this bank holiday weekend in the sunny garden, gently cleaning these finds up prior to restoring what I can to fighting or parade fitness. The others will go in a display box.
I often wonder about the stories behind how such figures and toys came to be buried or discarded. Were they lost toys or were they discarded because they were broken in action or accident?
They once belonged to someone, probably a small boy. Did they lament their loss or hardly notice it?
Before I post pictures of the cleaned up figures, what familiar figures can you see in the online auction picture?
Hint You can see toy animals, soldiers and more. Enjoy!
Blogposted by Mark, Man of TIN, Bank Holiday weekend 5/6 May 2018.
Some really useful Treasure Island type figures here, some that no doubt early gaming writer Robert Louis Stevenson would have enjoyed.
Safari’s Pirate Toob set has some interesting and useful 54mm or 1:32 plastic prepainted figures for gaming in the 18th and 19th Century.
The duelling figures with swords out would work really well with Donald Featherstone’s simple sword fight rules in one of my favourite Featherstone chapters “Wargaming in Bed” in his book Solo Wargaming.
“The Buccaneer was a Picturesque Fellow” by Howard Pyle is the oil painting, which the illustration was of, was sold in 1905 under the title The Buccaneer, and is currently part of the Delaware Art Museum’s collection.