Remembering author who created gentleman thief Raffles 100 years after his death

It is 100 years since the death of author Ernest William Hornung, who was known for his stories about the gentleman thief Raffles.

Tuesday, 13th April 2021, 10:26 am

Bernard Hornung felt the centenary anniversary of his great-great-uncle’s untimely death from Spanish flu had passed unnoticed, so he has provided somewhat of an obituary for our readers.

Ernest, known from a young age as Willie, was the youngest child of John Peter Hornung and his wife Harriet, and it was on his advice that his elder brother Pitt settled in Horsham.

Bernard said: “Pitt Hornung bought Compton’s Lea, where the family lived from 1902 to 1911. The house has since been developed into flats. This was a sensible plan by the developer.

Ernest William Hornung is remembered primarily as the creator of A J Raffles and as the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Ernest William Hornung is remembered primarily as the creator of A J Raffles and as the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“The family then moved to West Grinstead Park. Pitt Hornung also bought the Ivory’s Estate, now the Camelia Botnar Foundation, for my grandfather, Colonel Bernard Hornung, and The Glebe at West Grinstead for my great uncle Captain George Hornung.

“His two daughters Bertha Mary Collin and Blanche Laura Du Boulay were bought properties in London. They were both widowed young - their husbands also died from the Spanish flu.

“Sadly, some of the West Grinstead Estate is zoned for development, and I do not believe this to be a good plan.”

The Hornung family, from which Bernard has descended, left the Middle Rhine in 1142 and settled in Mediasch, Transylvania, where they remained until 1845.

Ernest’s father was christened Johan Petrus in Hungary and after graduating at Vienna University, he tried to make a good living, firstly in Hamburg and soon afterwards in Middlesbrough.

Bernard said: “By 1848 he had anglicised his name to John Peter and married Harriett Armstrong of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. He subsequently established himself as a wealthy merchant.

“Their second surviving son, also John Peter but always known as Pitt, was banished from the family circle, not once but twice, a spectacular achievement for a teenager.”

Willie Hornung attended Uppingham School but left early as a result of his ill health, in particular because he suffered from asthma. He was sent to Australia, where it was hoped that he would find the climate beneficial.

“On his arrival he was employed as a tutor to the Parsons family in the Riverina, south western New South Wales. In addition to teaching he spent much time working in remote sheep stations in the outback, and completing material for the weekly magazine The Bulletin. He also began writing what was to become his first novel.

“Although he spent only two years in Australia, the experience was the making of him, and the making of his career as a writer. Ernest William Hornung regarded his adventures in Australia to have been one of the most satisfying periods in his life.

“Upon his return to Middlesbrough, Willie found that the family home had been sold, and his eldest surviving brother, Theodore, desperately trying to turn the family business, J P Hornung & Son, around to pay off all the creditors.

“Willie then travelled to 49 Waldegrave Park, Twickenham, to find the family. His father was near bankruptcy and had suffered a stroke, and his brother Pitt had returned from Lisbon with his wife Laura and their two children.

“Writing came easily to him and so he immediately embarked upon writing stories based upon his adventures in Australia, and in this process created the character Stingaree.

“He was only 20 years old and financially supporting the entire family. Willie was one of the founder contributors to a magazine called The Idler, and another founder contributor was Dr Arthur Conan Doyle, which was how they first met.

“In his autobiography, Memoirs and Adventures, published in 1923, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentions his three sisters during a time when the Doyle family, like the Hornungs, were also living in much reduced circumstances.”

Sir Arthur’s youngest sister Constance met his friend Ernest at Norwood and the couple were eventually married.

Their romance began when Willie was still living with his mother in Twickenham and continued when Willie moved into a flat in central London.

Bernard said: “Since the autumn of 1892, or possibly earlier, Willie had been living at 17 Abingdon Mansions, a newly-constructed block of flats in Abingdon Road, near Kensington High Street. Intriguingly, the Post Office directory indicates that the occupant of 29 Abingdon Mansions was a Miss Doyle.

“Immediately prior to their marriage, Willie moved into the Grosvenor Hotel in Belgravia. After they had been married at St Edward’s Roman Catholic Church in the district of St George’s Hanover Square, on Wednesday, September 27, 1893, the newly-weds took up residence in another flat, 14 Rosetti Garden Mansions in Flood Street, South Chelsea.”

Bernard said Willie worked hard to establish himself as a best-selling author, who ‘cleverly inverted the Sherlock Holmes plot and created the classic escapades of that gentleman thief Raffles’.

“Raffles had rooms in the Albany (where else?) smoked Sullivans from a silver cigarette case and had a faithful side kick Bunny, who had fagged for him at school. Between them they moved smoothly through late Victorian society, relieving it unsuspectingly of its assorted pearls and rubies.

“His books became best sellers and Ernest William Hornung is remembered primarily as the creator of A J Raffles and as the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

“There is now growing recognition that he was in fact, one of the most prolific, versatile and popular authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, sensitive and ingenious and with a poet’s eye when it came to descriptions.

“In personality and appearance he had, indeed, rather more in common with Rudyard Kipling than he did with Conan Doyle. And like Kipling, he had a son, Arthur Oscar Hornung, who was killed in the First World War.

“Between 1890 and 1921, 30 books were published bearing the name E W Hornung, 20 novels (nine of them set primarily in Australia), seven collections of short stories (three of them relating to the adventures of Raffles), two books of poetry and one small book of wartime memoirs.

“There were also a number of short stories and articles which appeared in magazines and were forgotten by the world at large. Recently published were his First World War diaries.”

Pitt Hornung set himself up in great style at West Grinstead Park and Willie and Constance joined them there in December 1917.

Bernard said: “Pitt and Willie were two very close brothers, whose fate in life had been determined when they lived in Twickenham. They and both sisters-in-law, Laura and Connie, were to live the last years of their lives at West Grinstead.”

In the late 1960s, Bernard’s uncle, Sir John Hornung, and father, Stephen Hornung, commissioned Carl Edwards to create a memorial window, which is now the south window in the Parish Church of St George, West Grinstead.