Will (William Matthew) Scott (1893 – 1964)

Caricaturist, author and playwright

Will (William Matthew) Scott (1893 – 1964)
Courtesy of the Scott family

In the plush red stalls of the famous City Varieties you will find a seat with a plaque to William Matthew Scott, ‘caricaturist and author’. Who was he? Not many Leeds people will be able to tell you. He was born and bred here but he made his name ‘down south’ with his graphic art and his prolific writing, and the town he left behind has mostly forgotten him. Yet in his day thousands of people enjoyed his dry wit and sharp observation.

The first 20 years of his life were spent in Leeds, the seedbed for his fascination with music hall and theatre and his skills in caricature and story-telling. His first home in 1893 was in Camp Road, Little London, and then in nearby Woodhouse. The grim narrow streets and terraces where he lived are all gone now. His father was a joiner, his mother had been a dressmaker, both from working class backgrounds. In Will’s early childhood they ran a corner tobacconist’s shop to make ends meet. Money was tight but Will remembered the fun and jollity of the times.

He was a delicate child, often absent from school but free to roam and explore. By the age of 10 he was finding his way (if he could scrape a sixpence) into the theatres and music halls – the City Varieties, the Tivoli, the Empire – drawn by the music, the camaraderie, the humorous defiance of life’s many hardships. This experience was to colour his life and work.

He discovered a talent for drawing, influenced by the vivid graphic art of the theatrical posters and handbills pasted up everywhere, and of favourite comics like ‘Comic Cuts’. His first drawing was published when he was only 14, and with his parents’ backing he started training as a lithographic artist, probably in John Waddington’s theatrical printers. He had ambitions to be a ‘serious’ artist but found his strengths lay in cartoon and caricature. He developed his own bold, distinctive style, his work often featured in the local press.

He was 21 when war broke out, but was rejected as unfit (C3) for service. In 1915 he married a local girl, Lily Edmundson, and around the same time was encouraged to look for better prospects in London, launching himself there as a caricaturist. His increasingly modernist drawings of characters like George Robey featured in theatrical journals, particularly ‘The Performer,’ and in art and design magazines. He put forward his challenging views on art, arguing for it to be more accessible, not shut up in galleries but out in everyday life. He defended comic art and the new cubist and futurist movements he admired, but began to feel he was losing the battle. Life was hard, money short, and his health poor – when C3 men were called up in 1918 he was rejected again, with suspected TB.

Then a turning point. In 1919 he wrote and directed a silent comedy film, and in 1920 had his first short story published. At the same time he and Lily, with their first daughter, moved from London to Herne Bay in Kent: sea air and a fresh start. He turned from art to writing, particularly short stories – a record 3000 in all, contributing regularly to magazines like ‘Pan’, ‘The Passing Show’, ‘John Bull’, ‘Strand Magazine’. In 1925 he published a full-length novel ‘Disher - Detective’, witty, original, ‘a little masterpiece of ingenuity’, and two sequels, which he turned into a successful play, a comedy thriller called ‘The Limping Man’. It was staged twice in London’s West End and later filmed. This led to further film scripts and plays, including for the local theatre he helped to run.

He wrote for the newspapers too. In the late 1930s, the tense period before WW2, he had a regular column in the left-wing Daily Herald, then Britain’s biggest selling newspaper. His articles, quirky, thoughtful, spiced with the humour of everyday life, reached a huge readership and perhaps raised a smile in those dark times.

Post-war, prompted by having grandchildren to entertain, he enjoyed another kind of literary success with a series of children’s books which took off in popularity in the 1950s and 60s, based on the adventures of the Cherry family of four children, their parents and friends. Writing them, he said, was ‘the greatest fun in the world!’ These books, with their colourful covers and maps, are collectors’ items now.

A shy, quiet man, idiosyncratic and witty, Will Scott died in 1964. His only memorial is his work, which still occasionally surfaces in collections, an affectionate biography by his granddaughter, and that plush seat in the music hall setting that first enthralled him.

Eveleigh Bradford
March 2020