A Thundersley Mystery of a Quiet Man

FERGUSSON WRIGHT HUME (1859-1932)
By Robert Hallmann

The novelist Fergus Hume was born in England on 8 July 1859, the second son of Dr James Hume, who migrated with his family to New Zealand. Young Fergus studied at the University of Otago and was articled to the attorney general. Soon after his admission to the Bar in 1885 he left for Melbourne, where he became managing clerk to a solicitor. His real interest lay in becoming a playwright, though his first effort was a detective story: ‘Mystery of a Hansom Cab’ – A mystery, a murder and a description of low-life in Melbourne, Australia…

Melbourne publishers refused to consider it, so in 1887 he published it himself. It was to become an international best seller. The first edition of 5000 copies quickly sold out. He was a poor business man, or maybe he thought of it as only the beginning of his fortunes, but he sold the English and American rights to the novel for fifty pounds to a group of Australian speculators, which means he gained little benefit from its subsequent world-wide success, except for the dramatic rights to the long Australian and London theatre runs. The book became the top selling mystery novel of the Victorian era and has been described as ‘the first modern thriller’. It is said to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write ‘A Study In Scarlet’, which introduced Sherlock Holmes.

Hume settles in Thundersley

In 1888 Hume settled back in England, first in London, but after a few years in Thundersley, probably at the invitation of the Reverend Thomas Noon Talfourd Major. Hume lived in Thundersley for some thirty years, publishing in excess of 130 novels, plus several collections – most of them mystery stories, though he never recaptured the success of his first novel.

The 1911 census lists him as ‘author’, aged 51, and living at Church Cottage, Thundersley, which consisted of six rooms. He had a housekeeper, Ada Louise Peck, a widow of 69.

When the Rev Talfourd Major died, in 1915, Hume had to leave Church Cottage. (Another venue for a blue plaque?) He moved to ‘Rosemary Cottage’, 34 Grandview Road, Thundersley, where he lived with John Joseph Melville and his wife. Melville was a metallurgical chemist by profession, with a special study of alchemy. He knew Hebrew, Greek and Latin and had been Vice-President of the British Phrenological Society for ten years.

Fergus Hume died at Thundersley on 12 July 1932 and lies in an unmarked grave next to an actress and the Rev Maley. In spite of his prolific output, the author never managed to recapture the impact and acclaim of his first novel. All he left in his will were some small items, like a horse blanket and a pipe.

Does anyone have a book by this prolific author? The covers of some of his publications reflect the divers styles of the era. Today his books are being reprinted in paperback and hardback and available as eBooks. Some of his original illustrated volumes change hands for £££thousands.

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  • From some newspaper research, I can add a few more details about Fergus Hume.
    In 1907, according to the Chelmsford Chronicle, he welcomed into his house Miss Kitty Loftus, a popular actress, and her family for her wedding at St Peter’s to William Smith, son of the chairman of Bryant and May.
    In 1915, the Chelmsford Chronicle obituary of the Rev Talfourd Major, said that “A warm attachment existed between the deceased and Mr. Fergus Hume, the novelist, who lives at the Rectory Cottage, a few yards from the Rectory.”
    In 1932 in The People, it was said in an article, “FAME TO OBSCURITY – NOVELIST NEARLY PENNILESS AT THE END” that he died alone, forgotten and penniless. 50 years earlier, his name had been “on everybody’s lips” and he had been fêted by Society hostesses and was the “lion” of the day. However, for “more than 30 years he had been living on £2 a week derived from a small property left him by a relative. Mr Hume, who was seventy-three, had never married.”
    The Stage of Thursday 14 July 1932, added, “Mr. Fergus Hume – – -, was found dead yesterday – – – in the bathroom of a house in which he was lodging in Ramuz* Drive, Thundersley, Essex. Mr. Hume, who was 73, had been attended by a doctor for heart trouble. – – -. “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” was dramatised by the author and Arthur Law, and produced at the old Princess’s on February 23, 1888. His “His Mystery of Red Web” was adapted by Mr. Hume and Newman Harding, and produced at the Canterbury on May 18 1908.”
    (The People in 1908 had described ”The Mystery of the Red Web” as a complete novelette in seven stage chapters in 30 minutes, presented by the Charles Berte Co at the Canterbury. A review in the Music Hall and Theatre Review said, “There can be no doubt of the success of [the play] which distinguishes the current programme at the Canterbury Music Hall”).

    {*Ed: Ramuz Drive is in Westcliff, the road might have been Raymonds Drive, Thundersley.}

    By Terry B (06/12/2019)
  • I’m a distant relative of Fergus Hume and live in USA. I have copies of most of his books and have read them. Many of his books have wonderful descriptions of the countryside in Sussex. Some of the villages and places he names do exist. I thought it would be fun to plan a trip to see this area and his gravesite. It’s sad to realize his grave is unmarked. Does anyone there remember him?

    By Mazie Dalton (15/10/2019)
  • I’m looking for more info regarding Melville and in particular the scandal in Southend referred to in the article below.

    http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/alchemist-of-kosmoid-hall-1.396953

    Does anyone know more of his story?

    By Simon Lee (22/11/2013)
  • For those who would like to read “The Mystery of a Hansom Cab” it is available to download free at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4223

    By Nick Turner (21/07/2012)

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