Over the years there have been various attempts to find
Richmal Cromptons inspiration for the ‘original’ William
and also the subsequent William stories over the years.
The 2 front runners would be her brother John Lambourne (or Jack as
he was known) and her nephew Thomas (although at only nearly 4 years
old was surely too young to have been the original model).
John Lambourne, after growing up to become an adult, did everything
that William aspired to:-.
Writer, adventurer, dog lover, explorer, rat lover and rat killer, possible
smuggler, kidnap victim, detective, keeper of spiders, bees and other
insects, and Big Game Hunter.
As a writer under the name John Lambourne, he wrote 9 novels between
1927 and 1935. Obviously undecided as to which genre to write on, he
tried various genres – Humour as in Inky Wooing. Vampires as in
The Unmeasured Place, 2 based on his experiences of being a trooper
in Africa (Trooper Fault and Trooper in Charge) and 1 novel based on
his time in Africa (The White Kaffir)
He wrote another novel based on his China experiences (Squeeze- A Tale
of China) and his most famous book, a fantasy novel called The Kingdom
that Was which was followed by a sequel called The Second Leopard which
were also based in Africa.
The other book, Strong Waters, I haven’t been able to find out
any information as to what it was about except that it is also based
in Africa. All these books, with the exception of The Kingdom that Was,
are extremely difficult to get hold of.
On returning to England and for whatever reason, he gave up on novel
writing and started writing books about nature, mainly insects, under
the name John Crompton. Between 1947 and 1963, he wrote a total of 6
books. These books are a lot easier to get to hold of.
Luckily for me, when writing his naturalist books, he interspersed them
with anecdotes about his life, and between these and my other research
have been able to piece together a fascinating story of a very interesting
He was obviously going to write some sort of memoir book based on all
his experiences, however a deliberate fire destroyed all his notes from
Africa and China. As William, he played detective, thought over various
clues and deduced who the arsonist was. The police were called and the
arsonist admitted the crime.
His full name was John Battersby Crompton Lambourne.(known
as Jack to the family). He was born in April 1893 and was Richmal Crompton’s
younger brother. He attended Bury Grammar School and Manchester University.
As a small boy given to trespassing, his earliest memories of farmers
are quote “red faced men who roar like lions.” (Farmer Jenks
in the William books springs immediately to mind)
When, aged about 13, he helped a small child up who had slipped on an
icy road. The mother had come out and seeing her son crying, boxed Lambourne’s
right ear thinking he had attacked her son. He then had ear causing
trouble for the rest of his life. Again, like William, he was very indignant
about the whole thing.
Also as William, the acute observer and experimentalist, he used to
ring doorbells with his friends, run like mad and then observe the householders
reactions. He liked digging up winkles and eating them. There is no
mention whether they made him sick or not!
When he was 14 in Lincolnshire he was cycling and saw a migration of
rats crossing the road. After that he liked to collect them but later,
in African had an on/ off affair with them.
He had a strained relationship with his father (who was a teacher a
Bury grammar school) and resented the extra school work, in term time
and school holidays that his father set him, and matters came to a head
on a Bury sports day. Jack the great hope for his school house had demonstrated
in his training for the big day, all the vigour and enthusiastic ambition
so clearly lacking in his pursuit of knowledge. However, because he
was studying for some exmas, his father refused him permission to attend
and even the intercession of his father’s colleague, who was unwilling
to lose the star athlete, wasn’t enough to sway his father’s
His father intended his son to follow in his own footsteps and go into
the Anglican Church.
However, John Lambourne (as William) had other plans and at the age
of 20 in 1913 joined the Rhodesian Mounted Police as a trooper. His
Number was 1757, - the same as the character in the Trooper novels he
wrote. An advert had caught his eye in a national newspaper."
A few vacancies occur from time to time for smart, well-educated young
men who can ride and shoot and are willing to pay their own passage
out to Cape Town". These were the qualifications
require of the candidates. His description in the police was as follows:-
Height 5’ 11”, Hair Brown, Eyes Blue, Complexion Ordinary,
Nose Ordinary, Mouth Ordinary, Teeth No deficiencies, Chin Large. Marks
Fingers left hand.
He stayed with them through WW1 patrolling large areas of primitive
country and in charge of isolated ‘up-country’ out stations.
He stayed at Lobito bay in West Africa (Angola) He also lived by a lake
surrounded by Blue-Gum trees where he would bathe until the dry season.
At one time he lived in a rat infested hut called a Kya, and tried in
vain to get rid of them. He quotes “I got kitten after kitten
from guaranteed ratting mothers only to find they had joined the Society
for the Preservation of rats” . It was a hard life and the troopers
were a hard crew. Smoking cigarettes and drinking Cape brandy called
Dop were just a couple of their vices. This would come back to haunt
him in later life.
He had to take on many different duties as a trooper. He was acting
cattle inspector and made 100 mile journeys through strange country
by a bad tempered mule he called Gertie Millar. He took charge of Fort
Usher in Rhodesia with 15 native policemen and 20 convicts. He met with
native chiefs and moshona (native people living in Southern Rhodesia
and Mozambique) and had to deal with unfriendly natives. He got lost
once for 2 days when he was out hunting. William the Explorer would
have loved it! On his leaves back to England he would bring souvenirs
of his travels and Richmal Crompton had some of his Zulu Assegai on
her landing until after her death. Some of his tales were excellent
catalysts for some of the William stories.
In 1919 he joined a shipping company as a shipping clerk, and went to
China. He stayed there 13 years operating from Harbin in the North of
Manchuria down to Hong Kong. He lived in a town called Kiukiang on the
Yangse river. He spectated at local native cricket fighting matches
but didn’t have a cricket of his own to join in! He went diving
in Chefoo, and sailed on a tramp steamer near St Vincent Island. He
also travelled by Chinese Junk to various places on his travels. He
purchased a boat himself and entertained various Chinese with feasts
and a gramophone record that played Ave Maria by Dame Nellie Melba.
His leaves were spent big game shooting in Portuguese East Africa. (present
day Mozambique).However, in later years he regretted the slaughter of
the animals and his own, albeit small contribution to their decline.
In 1932 his health broke down, so he resigned from the firm and came
home, living with Richmal for a time at The Glebe.
Then he met and married Joan Cooke (yes she would have
to be called Joan!) They settled in Buckfastleigh, Dartmoor, Devon,
near Seale-Hayne agricultural college, where they stayed for 5 years.
The house was not as bad as the Outlaw's old barn although it was a
big rambling place, centuries old. There was NO electric, No gas and
NO mains water. However, it was cheap. His wife had a goat called Letty
and obviously humoured his love of creatures but did object when he
wanted to bring grass snakes into the house. There was an orchard which
had dessert apples, pears and plums, enclosed by a wall where he kept
poultry. Later he started keeping bees and became absolutely obsessed
with them. After leaving Devon, the family moved to Cornwall but he
still had his passion for bee-keeping. I think it was at this time,
that, like William’s family, they employed a gardener, an odd
job man and a charlady. However by 1948 they could no longer afford
In 1934 he had a son David , and in 1944 had a daughter called Sarah.
At that time they had a Pekingese called Ming. However after Sarah was
born, they felt the dog was getting jealous of the new baby so gave
it away to Richmal to look after.
In 1940 he joined the RAF. After the usual intensive training he emerged
as a flying control officer. Fate then took over as I will let him tell
you himself. “There was an airdrome near my home called St Eval.
If I could be posted there I would be able to go over and attend my
bees in my spare time. So I applied for this posting. At the same time
my best friend on the course, a Scot, applied for a posting to an airdrome
in Scotland. It was the wrong thing to have done. I was posted to Scotland
and he to St Eval. It was sometimes possible, however, to arrange an
exchange. We tried this and the request was granted, then, two days
later, cancelled. So I went to Scotland and my friend went to St Eval
and on his first night he was killed by a German bomb”. Later
Lambourne was transferred to and served in Iceland gaining promotion
to Flight Lieutenant in flying control.
In 1943 he was invalided out with a peptic ulcer, a condition for which
no decisive treatment was to be developed for another 40 years or so,
but was given leave to retain his rank. He stayed with Richmal at The
Glebe for a period after his discharge.
In 1947 he started writing books on natural history under the name John
Crompton, starting with the Hive and then followed by The Hunting Wasp
in 1948. It received rave reviews and his subsequent natural history
books were also successful. The Spider, Ways of the Ant, The Living
Sea and lastly, The Snake published in 1963
As with William, Lambourne was quite keen on experimenting eating different
foods. He tried Giant Japanese Crab in Manchuria, ate Python steak,
(which he says tastes like chicken) tried whale meat on several occasions,
and porcupine (blend of pork and chicken). In Africa, he tried Roasted
spiders, Often ate octopus in China, tried Japanese sweetmeat made from
Seaweed and also liked oysters. In Newcgwang, China he found a pearl
in a Ningpo oyster. It caused quite a stir in the restaurant . He hid
it in his sock in his room but it was still stolen. Like William, he
was very stoic about it and said “I expect I would have lost it
one way or another before long anyway”.
Also as William, he was very modest in the face of danger. In mentioning
his big game hunting exploits in Africa, where he hunted elephants,
rhinos, buffaloes and lions. He says rather nonchalantly, a la William
“naturally we had one or two tight corners”.
Again on the same theme, in China, after a shoot-out with bandits, he
had to go to a mission hospital in the interior with a gunshot wound.
He says and I quote “ It was a small affair and I was soon walking
about with a bandage”.
Throughout his life, as William, he had a large variety of pets. Sam
a huge Irish wolfhound in Africa, a corgi, a King Charles spaniel, a
pointer dog in Rhodesia, a pet Mole snake called Ghoo, a cat called
Tammy who was a good ratter, another cat in Iceland he had another good
ratter that he called Ginger. (No mention of Douglas or Henry though!)
He had a canary, he caught spiders and put them in matchboxes, then
took them home and put them in jars to observe them and he had a mule
called Molly. As I said before, he also had a Pekingese called Ming,
who when his daughter was born was given to Richmal Crompton. So lots
of pets but no mice. Apparently he was allergic to them.
In 1953 Joan had been taken into hospital with cancer, and Jack who
had been drinking heavily for a period was also admitted into hospital
for urgent treatment. During this time Richmal had been supporting Sarah
who was now 19 with “generous financial” help.
In December 1968, he had had 1 of a series of blackouts (it’s
unclear if these were the results of alcohol or not) and had to go to
Tunbridge Wells hospital – nothing broken, just badly bruised.
When Richmal Crompton died in January 1969, Jack was unfortunately,
too ill to attend the funeral. He died of a stroke 3 years later in
He was a fisherman on and off for 40 years. Went fox hunting. Doesn’t
like barber shops, doesn’t like income tax officials and if he
had a pub he would have call it The Ladybird Inn.
His son David John Crompton Lambourne followed in his dads footsteps
and served in the British South African Police (BSAP) joining on 5th
May 1952 as constable 4917 and was discharged on 4th May 1955. Members
serving in Bulawayo in the 1950’s recall him but all attempts
to date have failed to locate him. His daughter Sarah, who would now
be in her 70's has also proved elusive to contact.)
Whilst reading his books, I feel that his storytelling abilities based
on his own observations, especially regarding the absurd is sometimes
as rich as Richmal Cromptons. It must run in the family.
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