The ‘scoop’ that earned Edgar Wallace a place in journalism history consisted of 75 words, none of them written by Wallace. ‘PEACE’ said the first of seven headlines piled above the tiny story, ‘THE IRRECONCILABLES SUBMIT’, said another, ‘GENERAL SURRENDER’ said a third. It was the biggest story of the twentieth century, or so it seemed then, when the century was just two years old. The authorities were apoplectic.
Here was a newspaper, the Daily Mail of London, read by mere clerks and labourers, which had somehow learnt a closely guarded secret – that the Boer War had ended – before the British cabinet had been informed. Rival papers jeered that the story was a lie. But it wasn’t and the mystery was: how did Wallace do it? Edgar Wallace was the living embodiment of the journalist’s romantic idea of what journalists should be: reckless, audacious, contemptuous of authority, cunning, courageous, a braggart and a conman. He wrote swiftly and atrociously, which did not stop him from forging a second career as one of the most prolific and successful writers of pulp fiction in the British Empire. The best-known photograph shows him with head thrown arrogantly back, hat at a jaunty angle, a cigarette dangling from an absurdly long cigarette holder, and a wicked glint in his eye. Wallace was the illegitimate son of a penniless actress who parcelled him off to foster parents when he was a week old. The foster parents were equally poor, and had 10 other mouths to feed, but brought him up until the age of 12, when he left school for a series of tedious and short-lived jobs, interspersed by run-ins with the police. At 18, he joined the army in search of excitement. In six years he failed to encounter excitement, but his life changed when he was shipped off to South Africa, to serve as a medical orderly at The Castle. He never rose above the rank of private – to reach corporal required studying for an exam, which was too much effort.
For amusement, he wrote satirical ditties. One of them, mimicking the style of the poet of Empire, Rudyard Kipling, was written as a welcome to the great man who was about to visit the Cape. Wallace posted his poem to the Cape Times, whose editor, showing a fine nose for popular entertainment, published it on the day Kipling’s ship docked, under a note pointing out that it had been written by an army private. Wallace was invited to meet Kipling, who advised him to stay away from writing, ‘a splendid mistress, but a bad wife’. Ignoring this, Wallace quit the army and began freelance writing, first for the Cape Times and then Reuters, his timing perfect because a war had broken out. He was now 24 years old. He graduated to full-time war correspondent of the Daily Mail, for whom he penned jingoistic articles about the courage of the Tommies and the perfidies of the Boers, which earned him the honour, rare in those days, of having his byline on his articles. But the real story began only near the end of the war. That the Boers had lost the war was apparent to all but the Boers, who entered into and then exited peace talks at Middelburg and then Pretoria. In the opinion of Lord Herbert Kitchener, commander of the British forces, the press were to blame, because they published leaked information that spiked the deals. When it came to the third round of talks, Kitchener decreed that they be held at a distant camp in Vereeniging, surrounded by high barbed wire fences and patrolled round the clock by guards. Military censors had to approve all cables sent out of the country, and reporters were forbidden from even mentioning that talks were being held.
Wallace, who had never been fond of British army officers, was determined to beat the censors. The great benefit of his six years in the army was that he had an old crony who happened to be one of the guards at the camp, and who shared Wallace’s contempt for military authority. Each day, Wallace would travel in the train that ran from the Vaal River, border of Kruger’s republic, to Pretoria. He would sit, nonchalantly smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. But there was a point at which the train briefly came in sight of the Vereeniging camp. As the train came by, his friend (Wallace kept the man’s name a secret) would stroll to the fence and wipe his brow with a coloured handkerchief. A red handkerchief meant ‘a hitch in the talks’. A blue one meant ‘progress is being made’. A white one meant ‘the deal has been struck’. It seems likely that there were some more nuanced in-between signals, perhaps using hand gestures as well as handkerchiefs – or wiping the nose instead of the brow – but Wallace was coy about those details. His anonymous friend, after all, was in serious breach of military regulations. The next problem was getting the news to London without alerting the censors. Wallace met up with a minor-league Randlord named Harry Freeman Cohen, who played the stock market in partnership with his London-based brother. Wallace later described Freeman Cohen as ‘the whitest man I ever met’, presumably referring to the man’s fine sense of sportsmanship rather than his complexion. Cohen would send buy and sell notes to his brother, who went by the curious name of Caesar Cohen. Wallace persuaded him to also send coded messages on his behalf, for Caesar to pass on to the Daily Mail. There were a number of different codes and messages, but the ones that mattered worked like this. Cohen would send a message: ‘Have bought you Rand Collieries at 40s 6d’. If the number of shares was 100, the situation was unchanged. As the number crept up, the situation became increasingly favourable. By 700 shares, there was high confidence of a deal. When the number reached 1000, peace was absolutely assured. There was also a negative code. If he cabled ‘Have sold Rand Collieries shares at 40s 6d’, it meant the situation was deteriorating. At 100 shares, it was unsatisfactory. If it reached 1000 shares, then a deal was absolutely off. Given the sudden surge in telegram activity from Freeman Cohen, the military censors, who were not quite as dim-witted as journalists like to think, demanded that he show proof that he actually owned the shares. This was not difficult – Freeman Cohen was a major shareholder in Rand Collieries. His great interest in the fortunes of Rand Collieries thus made some sense. The censors did not ask again. The Vereeniging talks went on for days. Only the Daily Mail in London was confident enough to publish reports on the progress of the negotiations. Other correspondents were hanging about the gates of the camp, waiting for snippets and getting nothing. It was a mystery who the Daily Mail correspondent might be, since the articles carried no byline. Wallace was the obvious culprit, and both the military authorities and jealous rival journalists confronted him. But no one had seen him at the camp, he was not filing any cables, and he explained that he was tired of the endless waiting when nothing was happening and was busying himself with his own affairs. By 16 May 1902, the Daily Mail was already announcing that there was high confidence that a deal was likely. But the big story broke on Friday, May 30:
Daily Mail, May to June 1902, London.
Kaplan, Mendel & Robertson, Marian (eds). 1991. Founders and Followers, Johannesburg
Jewry 1187–1915. Cape Town: Vlaeberg.
Lane, Margaret. 1939. Edgar Wallace: Biography of a Phenomenon. London: The Book
Mervis, Joel. 1989. The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper Story. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.
PEACE BOER LEADERS REPLY THE IRRECONCILABLES TO SUBMIT ABANDONMENT OF INDEPENDENCE GENERAL SURRENDER PROBABLY ANNOUNCEMENT ON MONDAY REASON FOR DELAY The Boers, meeting at Vereeniging, have practically agreed to accept peace: only certain more or less minor details remain to be settled, and they are not expected to affect the broad decision arrived at. The Boer delegates return to Vereeniging from Pretoria on Wednesday, and it is understood they will exercise their full weight in favour of peace. The Government is expected to make its formal statement on, probably, next Monday in both Houses of Parliament.