A Tribute to
1918 - 1985
Creator of Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future
The blue plaque located at 488 Audenshaw Road, Audenshaw was unveiled on 2 November 2001 by Peter Hampson, as a tribute to his father, Frank Hampson.
The Early Years
Frank Hampson was born on the 21st December 1918 at 488 Audenshaw Road, Audenshaw to Robert and Elsie and was the middle child born to the Hampson's. His father was an engineer's clerk with the Railway and ex Second Lieutenant in the 8th Manchester Regiment. The family later moved to Southport and Frank received his education from the age of eleven at the town's King George V Grammar School. Frank had limited formal art training but enjoyed drawing and learnt how to tell a story in pictures, using few words. He was fascinated by the American newspaper supplements sent by relatives from Canada and inspired particularly by their use of the strip cartoon format.
Frank left school at fourteen to become a telegraph boy with the GPO. With his father's help he was admitted to life classes at the local art school, Victoria College of Arts and Science, where he later enrolled for a diploma in design course in 1938.
Joining the Army on the outbreak of war, he drove lorries for the Royal Army Service Corps and was a private when he was rescued from Dunkirk in 1940. Four years later he was landed in Normandy as a junior officer. He was later to write of those days mentioning, somewhat reflectively, that 'on the quays of Antwerp you could watch the birth of space travel'. Significantly, Frank always wanted to be a pilot with the RAF.
In 1944 Frank married Dorothy Mabel Jackson, daughter of a Cardiff surveying engineer. The couple had one child, a son Peter. Following the war Frank set up the family home in Southport and in 1947 enrolled at the Southport School of Arts and Crafts for a course in illustration. He set up a silk-screen, colour-printing business with fellow student Harold Johns.
One of the tutors at the School later recalled that 'Hampson was an outstanding draughtsman who was prepared to go to endless trouble to get a thing right'.
Hampson's big break
Frank's career as an artist began when a local parson, Marcus Morris, the vicar at St James, Birkdale wanted a professional edge to some of the illustrations in the parish magazine 'Anvil' of which he was editor. Early in 1948 he turned to the business run by the two art school students. Morris felt that the Church of England was not publicising its message effectively enough and already had ambitions involving 'Anvil' as a monthly national Christian magazine.
Attending a conference for Lancastrian diocesan editors convened by a nearby Blackburn vicar Chad Varah, Morris was among those agreeing to form a Society for Christian Publicity (SCP) and to set
up an organisation - called 'Interim' - which would syndicate the best articles in Christian writings for the editors to utilise in their parish magazines.
The SCP would produce magazines to appeal magazines to appeal to the man-in-the-street and, exploring the strip cartoon techniques, try to publish a magazine aimed at children.
The Birth of Dan Dare and the Eagle...
Meanwhile the British comics market in 1949 was being swamped with American 'horror comics' to such an extent that Marcus Morris, speaking as a concerned vicar, published an article in a Sunday newspaper. Entitled 'Comics that bring horror into the nursery', the article cleverly announced that he wanted to see a popular children's comic with clean and exciting adventures.
At this time Frank was pressed financially and was tempted to go freelance in London. This would have broken the link with Marcus Morris, the Society of Christian Publicity and the 'Anvil'. Realising the seriousness of the situation, Morris, on behalf of the Society, then employed Hampson full time, initially working on 'Anvil'. Gradually Frank and Marcus evolved a science fiction character called Dan Dare, his colleagues and his futuristic worlds. Many years later Frank was quoted as saying "Title, story, drawings and inventions were all mine and the paper, in a recognisable form and christened Eagle by my wife, was ready on my council house dining room table".
Marcus Morris now had a dummy magazine to show to potential publishers; it would contain several dozen pages, bright colour, excellent drawing and an assortment of adventures to appeal to girls and boys aged from six to sixteen. Morris hawked it around Fleet Street and, after many refusals, Hulton Press indicated they were interested and asked Morris not to approach any other publishers. Hulton's was a fairly small-scale publisher, perhaps best known as the publishers of 'Picture Post' and in 1949 all suffered from problems connected with paper shortages, severely limiting the number of new titles.
Matters moved fast and just over seven months after acceptance the Eagle was launched on 14th April 1950 with Marcus Morris as editor. Frank Hampson had contributed to five pages of cartoon strip in the first few issues and this could not be sustained. Anticipating such a heavy workload of artwork, he had drafted in several other artists including Bruce Cornwell, Terry Maloney and Eric Eden. Several of the artists working with Frank on other Society of Christian Publicity publications, now including 'Anvil', such as Harold Johns and Jocelyn Thomas were made part of his 'Team'. They worked firstly in a converted Southport bakery before moving to Epsom in August 1950. There they occupied a variety of houses before settling in 1954 into a purpose-built studio complex in Bayford Lodge. Marcus Morris had also moved to the town several months ahead of Frank.
In every aspect of his artwork Frank was meticulous. A perfectionist who spent hours creating scenarios for Dan Dare, inventing machinery for him and his colleagues to use and often dropping off over his drawing board after yet another 20 hour working day.
There was a very tight schedule for the production of the weekly two pages. It was rigorously adhered to. It had to be to enable Eagle to appear on time and Frank and his team were only a few weeks in advance of the distribution date. The schedule dictated that Frank would think out the next episode of Dan Dare over the weekend and complete a rough in pencils, sometimes even more finished when he used inks. With the aid of his research materials, such as character reference sheets, together with a variety of scale models and mock-ups of space equipment, each frame would be posed by the artists and photographed by Joan Porter, an artist who had been part of Frank's team since early 1950. Each artist, including Frank, would then be allocated frames to produce finished Dan Dare artwork using the photographs and the studio aids.
The completed pages of brightly coloured finished artwork depicting Dan Dare's adventures with his Spacefleet colleagues were conveyed to the printers, Eric Bemrose at Liverpool. There, after lengthy pre-press processing, a dedicated photogravure unit would produce a print run close to a million.
Every hero needs his foil, and Dan Dare had Digby. Digby was to Dan what Watson was to Holmes, or Robin to Batman, a wonderful companion to the lead. In the Dan Dare cartoon strip, Digby, although possessing some facial cartoon characteristics, was solidly based on fellow artist Harold Johns.
There was also a large cast of other characters such as Sir Hubert Guest, the Spacefleet Controller (based entirely on Hampson's father) and Professor Jocelyn Peabody, the glamorous and competent female, based physically on one of the team of artists, Greta Tomlinson. Many of the other characters were entirely cartoon creations. They include Hank Hogan the Texan, Pierre Lafeyette the Frenchman, Flamer Spry the cadet from Spacefleet's Astral College, along with Lex O'Malley the Irish seafarer. The first Dan Dare adventure, 'The Venus Story', with 77 weekly episodes was incredibly long by any modern standards in children's fiction. The complete story had some really excellent ideas: although many were Frank's, some originate with his first collaborator, Arthur C. Clarke, one of Britain's best known science fiction authors.
The opening episodes of the first story were scene setting. The whole setup of Venus was carefully described and delineated. Some way into the story the most effective villain in juvenile science fiction appears; the Mekon.
The story concerns a starving Earth and an attempt to relieve this situation by importing food from the most Earth-like planet, Venus. Spacefeet is charged with this task. After several failed attempts to land on the planet, Dan Dare - Chief Pilot of Spacefleet - has an idea why the earlier spaceships failed and, once having addressed the problem, a small team of six led by Dan and using old-fashioned technology comprising three rocket ships set off for Venus.
Venus is portrayed as a divided planet. The north is inhabited by Treens led by the Mekon; a race characterised by emotionless, technologically ruthless behaviour, quite capable of any barbarity. The south is occupied by peace-loving Therons; who while technically advanced, live lives of gentle contemplation in floating homes in the sky. Physically separated by a volcanic flamebelt, the two civilizations have had an uneasy truce for centuries.
In the story, despite the hostile Treens and their very negative response to helping Earth, Dan succeeds in galvanising the Therons into action on his side. Swinging the balance against the Treens are the Atlantines; Earth people abducted by the Treens many thousands of years ago and kept on reservations as convenient slaves. Eventually Dan, with a little help from the UN, solves the problems of Earth's food provision from Venus.
Following this story, Dan and his Spacefleet colleagues adventured round the solar system for several years before setting out on two interstellar journeys, the second of which involved a search for his father. Coincidentally, the latter story marked Hampson's departure from drawing the strip.
We must remember that in 1949, when Dan Dare was conceived, science fiction had not yet become as commonplace as it was later to become; typified in the cinema and the television by films such as Star Trek, Star Wars and Alien.
In 1959 Hulton Press was sold to Odhams Press, who wished to alter Dan Dare. In the summer of 1959 Frank Hampson was switched to illustrate a back page story of Jesus Christ beginning the following January. He did a truly magnificent job. The story was written by Marcus Morris (heavily based on an unaccredited script by the Reverend Guy Daniel).
Swansong: Hampson's Departure from the Eagle
Marcus had left the Eagle editors' chair in the autumn of 1959, signalling to readers that drastic changes were afoot.
Frank's Dan Dare studios at Bayford Lodge were disbanded and the team of artists, then containing some relative newcomers; Keith Watson and Gerry Palmer, along with Frank's main assistant since 1952 Donald Harley, transferred up to Eagle's editorial base in Hulton House in Fleet Street. Frank himself left Eagle in April 1961.
In the following years he undertook small advertising commissions requiring cartoon strip work and some wonderful illustrations for eleven Ladybird books aimed at young readers. He later became a graphics technician at Ewell Technical College. From the mid-seventies Frank studied Art History with the Open University and he graduated early in 1979.
What happened to Dan Dare is rather sad. His popularity declined because the style of drawing became too different for many to accept. Frank Bellamy, another highly proficient artist working for Eagle drew the strip for precisely a year. He drew in tandem with the Dan Dare team and the style problem was further exaggerated. After Bellamy returned to other Eagle artwork, the team of Dan Dare artists, now consisting of Don Harley, Bruce Cornwell and Eric Eden, only worked on the strip until April 1962 before it to was disbanded. Dan Dare no longer had the cover appeal it had enjoyed during the Fifties.
The Eagle was now owned by the International Publishing Corporation who was even less concerned about Dan Dare than the previous owners. Artist Keith Watson, once chosen by Hampson to join his studio team, was employed by IPC to draw Dan Dare; he managed to engineer a partial recovery in Dan's fortunes, although when Keith resigned in 1966 Dan Dare had precious future left.
Unfortunately Hampson witnessed the traumas visited upon his spaceman-creation with increasing frustration.
Recognition at last: Hampson's Rewards
In November 1975, Frank received the Yellow Kid life achievement award at the Lucca comics convention in Italy, and was declared 'prestigious maestro' as best writer and illustrator of strip cartoons since World War II.
In the Spring of 1976 Frank was presented with a special Ally Sloper award by the British Association of Comics Enthusiasts to commemorate his major contribution to the art of cartoon strips.
Frank was aware that there had been a Dan Dare appreciation society operating for hundreds of Eagle readers since 1964, in which Keith Watson played a leading role. Some people remembered the great days of the cartoon strip! It has mushroomed since then and is now called the Eagle Society.
In the late sixties Frank became ill with throat cancer which he overcame. He died on the 8 July 1985 at Epsom Cottage Hospital.
The assistance of the following are gratefully acknowledged:
- Peter Hampson (son of the late Frank Hampson)
- David Britton (Joint Curator, Eagle Exhibitions)
- Howard Corn (Chairman, Eagle Society)
- Adrian Perkins (Archivist, Eagle Society)
- Keith Howard (Membership Secretary, Eagle Society)
- Tony Cowley (Eagle Times Magazine Consultant, Eagle Society)
See our comprehensive listing of further Blue Plaques featured around Tameside