Literary History and Methodist lantern slide shows

October 20, 2008

Little did we know how much we would be learning about Methodism when Forest of Galtres Society members settled down in October 2008 to hear about Willie Riley, a twentieth century Yorkshire author.

Unusually, there were no slides, but we had lots of books to look at together with photographs, and David Copeland’s infectious enthusiasm gathered the story together and kept us all paying keen attention. The family firm of Riley Brothers Optical Lantern Business made gas-lit machines with which to view celluloid images. This was somewhat dangerous, even if health and safety had not been invented. The slide sets of biblical stories and educational stories were for Sunday School use, especially for the Methodist Church.

In 1911 Willie Riley and his wife were helping two young sisters to adjust to the tragic loss of their parents and another sister. He began to write a story for them and read out a chapter at a time. The girls greatly enjoyed it. Friends said the story was so good he should publish it. Reluctantly, he drew up a list of five or so publishers, from which he drew one of the names at random as the sole publisher to which he would offer his story. Off went the manuscript. A few weeks later back came a letter saying the firm, Herbert Jenkins, would be very pleased to meet Miss Riley and would she be able to come up to London to meet them.

Mr Riley went to the publisher’s offices and gave then quite a surprise! He had written the story from a female viewpoint, which at that time was most unusual for a man. It also became apparent that the publisher was new to the business, and wished Riley’s novel to be their first publication.

Willie Riley had to choose a title before the book was sent off to Jenkins, and what he chose did not seem to be quite what the publisher wanted, but nothing else jumped into mind. So, ‘Windyridge’ it remained. The novel was published in 1912, and was very successful, selling many copies. That title caught the imagination. Appreciative readers of the story gave their houses that name, and in such numbers that, even now, David Copeland has been able to find many of them right across the world. The First World War intervened in the Optical Lantern Company’s success, and it closed. After the success of the first novel, Willie Riley devoted himself to full-time writing, and thirty eight other novels followed. The Second World War saw the destruction in a fire of the printing plates for the books.

By chance, David’s brother bought a house called ‘Windyridge’ in Newcastle upon Tyne. This, unwittingly, enticed David into a long research project, and his MA Thesis was presented to Bradford University just this year. David sought out copies of all the novels. He tracked down out relatives and sought out ‘The Dalesman’ publication staff for their memories of Willie Riley. They provided a list of all the places and views used in Riley’s novels. David found a collection of newspaper cuttings in Bradford Library, a public library with the typed manuscript of ‘Windyridge’, and he found, by sheer good luck and happy coincidence, a nephew with his roof space full of boxes of treasure; the papers left by Riley at his death. Even a recording of an interview of Willie Riley made in May 1961 for ‘Women’s Hour’ has survived. This was made only one month before his death.

Such good luck kept David firmly focused as he filled in the gaps in his knowledge from each new find. Willie Riley was an interesting person whose generous spirit and writing ability sustained him, though only just, from age 45 to his death, some nearly forty years later. Now we have heard about ‘Windyridge’, the local library service may well find those Riley novels are once again requested by eager readers, just as they used to be!

 
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