CHAPTER ONE

East-End Boy

1896-1915

from Jack the Rippers Whitechapel

to the trenches of Flanders

Peter Cheyney was born Reginald Southouse Cheyney – Reggie – in the East End of London on 22 February 1896. The last of five children to Catherine (neé Southouse) and Arthur Cheyney, Reggie was fair-haired, blue-eyed, with a fresh complexion. He was known at school as ‘a round, rather rough little boy’.

Reggie was bright, but not academic, prefering to learn to be street-wise from his older brothers. Their home, at 92 Whitechapel High Street, had a tiny backyard, the ground floor was their mother’s corset shop, with workrooms above and living accomodation on the upper two floors.

Whitechapel High Street of the 1890s was a vibrant place: a hay market, shops and stalls sold fruit, fish, cloth, live animals, Everlasting Sticks, the Police Gazette, joke visiting cards. There were men with trays of collar studs, hairpins, bull’s eyes, senna pods, hair restorer. And food: pease pudding, faggots, chestnuts, hot potatoes, oysters, jellied eels, mutton pies, sarsparilla, lemonade, whelks, cockles, pigs’ trotters. ‘Little street arabs’ with pail and brush collected droppings from the huge dray-horses, to sell for the gardens of the grand houses. People on the street would be drunk at all times of the day and policemen still wore frock coats. This was the playground of Reggie Cheyney.

His father, Arthur, was among those selling oysters, and those who drank. Much to his shame, it was Kate who supported the family. They separated in 1898, as witnessed by the 1901 census, Kate took on a maid-apprentice and Kate’s sister ‘Aunt Polly’ moved in. The census listing also shows the boys Arthur Joseph (14), Stanley (7) and Reginald (5). Between the two elder boys, Kate had given birth to a daughter who died before her first birthday, and a son, Sydney, who died at the age of twelve, shortly before the census. Sydney had been her favourite (as the other boys were much more like their father in character) on his death she transferred her attention to Reginald and gave him the best education she could afford, even trying to send him to boarding school, away from the less than positive effects of Whitechapel High Street. As Michael Harrison writes in his 1954 biography of Peter Cheyney:

 

“ ...the most significant evidence of this close intimacy which existed between mother and son is to be found in the fact that all the ‘nice’ women in his writings – every one of them – the Catherine Cheyney whom he found waiting for him, when he realised he had escaped the threat of separation.

She was then just over forty ... he is perfectly sincere in finding women attractive at forty and over. He is not even aware here that he is going against a deep-rooted convention of ‘popular’ writers...

Take, for instance, the short story Double Alibi, in which Callaghan – the idealised Cheyney – meets Mrs. Charlesworth. ‘Mrs. Charlesworth was a plump and pleasant woman of forty. Her hair was freshly waved, her frock fashionable. Callaghan looked at her admiringly’. ”

The middle brother, Stanley, wanted to become a professional musician, but Kate found him an apprenticeship to a tailor. Oldest brother Arthur had already found success on the stage in the troupe of music-hall star Fred Karno (which at various times included Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton). Kate’s business had become very successful and she had high hopes for Reggie, despite his less than shining school career. He went to college where he learnt to type, use shorthand, understand company accounts, and elements of business law, all of which would stand him in good stead later. Kate found him a place as a junior in a law firm, but his own ambition was to follow his brother onto the stage...

CHAPTER ONE

East-End Boy

1896-1915

from Jack the Rippers Whitechapel

to the trenches of Flanders

Wars, Wives & Work

1915-1948

two world wars, three wives

and numerous careers

CHAPTER THREE

International Best-Selling Author

1936-1951

from ghost writer

to multi-million bestseller

© 2020 Adrian Sensicle.

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