Employment, wanderlust and adventure in the Sahara 1937 – 1947

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief

Employment and a Gift for Writing

Leaving school at the age of fourteen, Bagley’s working life started in a printing establishment where he worked as a ‘printers devil’, an apprentice position that he didn’t much care for. He subsequently took a job working in a factory producing electrical fittings, and later found employment with Frank Hawtin Ltd., of Preston New Road, Blackpool, a company specialising in the manufacture of amusement rides and arcade machines.

Desmod Bagley - Employment - F.W. Hawtins Factory. Image © & courtesy The Penny Arcade.

At the outbreak of World War II, on 3rd September 1939, Hawtin’s factory was turned over to the production of aircraft parts for the war effort and Bagley, too young for conscription to the armed forces, was engaged as an engineer. By the time he was old enough for conscription he was too valuable to be released from his reserved occupation, which he found monotonous and remained at the factory for the duration of the war.

It was during this period of his life that he met a friend and mentor, George Higgins. George was a blacksmith and metal hardener, a cheerful man full of energy, who was also a producer and actor in The Blackpool Anonymous Players [1]. George introduced Bagley to the theatre company and to poetry and drama, to the works of George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, Walter Greenwood and Christopher Fry. It was to George that Bagley took his first story and it was George that made the fledgling writer aware he had a gift for writing.

Desmond Bagley – known to his friends as ‘Simon’

Leslie Charteris - Enter The Saint. Image © Hodder & Stoughton.

It was also during this period that Bagley’s pseudonym of Simon appears to have originated. An unknown war-time friend of his was addicted to The Saint stories, written by Leslie Charteris, and took to calling everybody ‘Simon’ after the protagonist of the novels, Simon Templar [2]. In Bagley’s case the name stuck, so much so that he was to use the nickname, particularly with his friends for the rest of his life, also using it as a pseudonym for an early published science fiction novelette.

Wanderlust and Adventure in the Sahara

By the time the war finally ended Bagley had acquired a desire to travel, fuelled by stories of those who had joined the armed forces and had ended up scattered over the world. With little for Bagley to spend his wages on during the war he used his savings to travel, leaving England in the spring of 1946 for Norway. Travelling with a friend they spent two months walking from Oslo to Narvik, returning by sea to Harwich. His friend had satisfied his wanderlust, however Bagley sought more adventure and took a lift on a fishing trawler leaving Fleetwood bound for Reykjavík, Iceland.

With funds depleted he returned to Blackpool, where post-war life was difficult, and times were austere. With no income and thoughts of travel playing on his mind he spent the autumn of 1946 thinking about his future. It was then that he noticed an article in the Blackpool Gazette about a small group of people preparing to embark on an overland journey across the Sahara, emigrating to Durban in South Africa. The group were advertising for people to join the journey and with both shipping lines and airlines booked up solid for two years the venture appealed to Bagley.

Twenty-three years old, unshaven, wearing ‘bottle bottom’ thick lens horn rimmed glasses and dressed in an oversize army great coat down to his ankles, Bagley applied to join the expedition and was accepted. [3]

Africa circa 1947 showing Desmond Bagley’s route. Map © C.S. Hammond & Co., N.Y.It was during a snow storm on the morning of Thursday 7th January 1947 that the group of twenty-five left Blackpool Town Hall setting off on a proposed twelve-week journey. In two adapted war surplus three-ton Chev army trucks and a trailer caravan they left behind the austerity of post-war Britain in search of a better life.

Leaving England via Folkestone the group made their way through France to Marseilles then across the sea to Algeria. Travelling over the Atlas Mountains, they commenced their crossing of the Sahara Desert. Passing through French Niger, British Nigeria, French Equatorial Africa and the Belgian Congo. Problems within the group whilst in the Belgian Congo caused the party to change their proposed route to Uganda and then Kenya. During this time Bagley became disenchanted with the expedition and left the group in Nairobi on 21st March 1947, as he had managed to arrange employment back in Kampala.

Next: Employment in South Africa, Journalism, Short Stories and Science Fiction 1947 – 1962


Images © & courtesy The Penny Arcade; © Hodder & Stoughton; & © C.S. Hammond & Co., N.Y.

1. The Blackpool Anonymous Players is still in existence, now renamed Lytham Anonymous Players.

2. Bagley, J. (1999). pers.comm 13th April 1999 with Davies, M. [via Foston. L (2016). pers.comm 3rd May, 2016.]

3. Topping, I. & Topping, D. (Amazon: 2012) Legacy – Overland Trekkers Blackpool to Durban 1947.

From ‘The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley Exhibition’, first exhibited at the Guille-Allés Library, St. Peter Port, Guernsey – 10th May – 9th June 2018.

The Life and Work of Desmond Bagley - © The Bagley Brief.