- Ally Sloper's Pocket Watch (and Other Extra-Textual Periodicals)
On 9 november 1889, a list of names and addresses appeared on the third page of Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. This peculiarly-named periodical was one of the late-Victorian period's most popular comic magazines.1 Each week, more than 300,000 readers paid a penny to catch up with the picaresque misadventures of a cartoon character named Ally Sloper and his dysfunctional family. Thousands of these readers might have hoped to find their names on the list that week, but only twenty were lucky enough to make the cut. At the top was H. Lightfoot, an eighteen-year-old printer from Peckham. Below him followed an eclectic list of people, including a farmer from Norfolk, a Yeovil postman, the proprietor of the Three Tuns Hotel in Falmouth, a twenty-year-old girl named Minnie Rumble, and a man named Tom Maltby who described himself as a music hall "Comedian and Banjoist." Each of them had clipped a coupon from a previous issue and added their [End Page 207] name, age, occupation, subscription-duration, and address before sending it to the magazine's London offices for consideration. Two weeks later, having been plucked from thousands of other hopeful entrants, they were about to become the recipients of a much-coveted prize: an official Ally Sloper pocket watch.
By then, this had become a familiar routine for readers of the Half Holiday. The paper awarded the first batch of twenty "Sloper watches" in July 1886 and repeated the giveaway on a weekly basis for many years (fig. 1). Each weekly competition was "complete in itself," which meant that unsuccessful readers had to clip out and submit a new coupon every time. As the magazine encouragingly advised at the top of each prize column, "if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again" (Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, 21 August 1886). It is possible that the likes of Minnie Rumble or Tom Maltby might have tried and failed 169 times before finally securing a prize.
I had it a bit easier. In May 2016, I bought one of the watches on eBay (fig. 2). It is in remarkably good condition given its age. The movement keeps good time and, after its stem has been wound, ticks away contentedly for the rest of the day. The face of the watch looks much like other mass-produced timepieces from the period: the hours and minutes are marked by roman numerals set against a plain white background, while a smaller, inlaid dial keeps track of the seconds. The back, however, is more distinctive and "has engraved upon it a faithful portrait of Ally Sloper" himself (Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, 31 July 1886). His bulbous red nose and crumpled top hat are both on show and would have been immediately familiar to many Victorians; Sloper, by the 1890s, was a bona fide cartoon celebrity and as recognizable to contemporary audiences as Mickey Mouse is today. Below him are the letters "A. SLOPER. F.O.M.", which regular readers would have understood as a reference to his self-appointed title, "Friend of Man." Finally, the back of the watch pops opens to reveal an inner compartment engraved with a version of the magazine's masthead.
Most surviving Sloper watches follow the same design, but mine came with a surprising addition. On the opposite side of the inner compartment, scratched so faintly as to be nearly invisible, is a handmade engraving left by the watch's owner:
F / Hudson
Sure enough, the list of winners for that date included Frederick Hudson, a fifty-year-old coal dealer from Erith, in Kent. The fact that Hudson chose to commemorate the date on which the watch was awarded suggests that this was a moment of real significance. The magazine initially promised that "in the course of time every Purchaser of 'ALLY SLOPER's HALF-HOLIDAY' who [End Page 208]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
wants a 'SLOPER...