The Funny Dictionary: An A–Z of Kids' Funny Definitions (2018), like many books of howlers, owes its greatest debt to the indefatigable collector of howlers, English journalist, novelist, publisher, and literary agent Cecil Hunt. This tribute to Cecil is very much a work in progress. I have found it quite difficult, researching from Australia, to learn everything I can about Cecil’s life, work, and death. Like Cecil, I have an ingrained curiosity, and I am especially curious about interesting and passionate people such as Cecil Hunt. If you have further information about (Horace) Cecil Hunt, especially for the years 1948–54, or if you have any corrections to suggest, please email me so that I may incorporate the extra information into future edits.
Cecil Hunt (13 September 1902–13 July 1954) lived a relatively short life, but for him life was never a matter of years, but a matter of living. Even as a child, he participated in everything he could — singing, Scouting, playing sports, and reading widely. But his greatest passion was writing. In his lifetime, he wrote around 60 books — not only humour books but also novels, quiz books, books on journalism, and more (see ‘Works by Cecil Hunt’, below).
Cecil was born to Horace Richard Barnes Hunt and Constance Kate Sharpe Hunt in Wood Green, then a new North London suburb. Constance came from a family of Kentish farmers; Cecil never knew his maternal grandparents. Horace Senior was a Northampton man; Cecil’s paternal grandfather, when walking the dogs, frequently met with Charles Dickens. (Cecil would later be responsible for serialising Dickens’ Life of Our Lord for The Daily Mail, the rights to which cost the newspaper 40,000 pounds in the 1930s, for a book that comprised just 14,000 words.)
Cecil’s father, himself a keen reader, encouraged Cecil to read from an early age. The spare room, littered with piles and boxes of books, became a secret haven for Cecil. The first book Cecil could remember reading was Swiss Family Robinson, though it is almost certainly not the first book he read.
Cecil’s first school was a private school in Wood Green. Cecil described himself as ‘a wretched pupil, uninterested in most of the lessons’. He was left-handed, a trait that the school tried to stop, since in those days left-handedness was seen as sinister. Cecil described the conversion process as ‘painful’. Writing in 1935, Cecil said he would never allow a child of his to be forced to change their natural left-handedness.
From around 4, Cecil’s sleep was frequently interrupted by vivid and startling dreams. (He would later develop the skill, as an adult, of falling asleep within minutes — by reading more quickly than he could absorb the words’ meaning.) Cecil did not believe his vivid imagination was inherited, but he did believe he secured from his parents an invaluable sense of humour. From his mother, he also gained agility of mind; from his father, restlessness of thought. This restlessness often exhausted Cecil, but it induced in him an inquiring mind:
‘We did not follow the crowd; we avoided the easiest, accepted thing. We enlarged our world and we acquired, through this restlessness, a wider vision of the precious gift of healthy curiosity.’
Cecil could recall nothing but happy memories from these early years.
The young Cecil was responsible for a howler of his own, which almost made the pages of the Punch magazine. Cecil suffered badly from wind as a child, and he did not fully appreciate the cause. One night, he asked his mother to shut the bedroom window. ‘Why?’, Mrs Hunt enquired. ‘In case I get the wind’, Cecil replied in all seriousness.
In his ninth year, the Hunt family moved out to Palmers Green, then on the fringe of London. A healthy, mischievous boy, Cecil was sent to the local elementary school. His was the average experience of a boy full of spirit. He never coveted scholastic honours or envied the top scholastic performers. His interests were outside, on the sports grounds or in the parks.
Life was full, Cecil taking part in almost every outside and inter-school function that he could. Whatever was doing, he was in it. He valued his friendships and regarded the ability to make and maintain friendships invaluable to happiness in adult life as well. As an adult, he quoted the German proverb that ‘friendship is a plant we must water often’. The school’s head mistress also had a sentiment that appealed to Cecil even at his young age — if it has to be done, it has to be done, so let’s get on with it.
Cecil sat for a scholarship for the local secondary school, Southgate County School. To his surprise, and to everyone else’s, he passed. Although those school days were happy days for Cecil, he tersely rejected the advice that they are the happiest years of one’s life. For Cecil, deeper happiness comes with responsibilities.
Two activities, in particular, occupied many hours of Cecil’s boyhood: Scouts and singing in the church choir. But his career as a chorister ended sadly: Cecil’s voice never broke. Even as an adult, he could sing treble easily.
The Scouts gave Cecil his first writing opportunity. At around 16, he contributed an essay to a troop magazine called The Coyote. About this time, for two years, Cecil bombarded editors with his writing, without success — except for a submission in September 1920 to the Star about the first international Scout camp. Three days after sending his handwritten note about the camp, the Star published it:
‘It would be difficult to recapture the thrill of that moment. It seemed incredible that it could be my item. It was unbelievable even when I saw the paragraph in print.’
During the First World War, as a teenage Scout, Cecil helped at a local hospital. His younger brother died during this period, of an illness unconnected with the war. He completed his scholarship without distinction and his longing to write was undiminished.
His father decided to send Cecil to King’s College to study subjects that would help Cecil in his writing. He also sent Cecil to learn shorthand and typewriting. When those classes finished, Cecil faced a hard fact: he had been writing and submitting to newspapers without success. It was time to get a real job.
Eventually, in December 1920, Cecil secured a job as an insurance clerk at the Guardian Assurance Company, at its Fleet Street branch. A budding journalist, the Fleet Street location thrilled Cecil.
He left Guardian Assurance Company after 3 years to pursue a writing career, though the idea of joining the priesthood had earlier also occurred to him. He wished, he said, that he ‘could accept the full Catholic faith… but I stumble on what are insuperable obstacles’. On some matters, Cecil was a man ahead of his times; he evidently had more progressive views than the Church at the time on divorce, euthanasia, and sex education in schools.
Without enough writing work to sustain him, Cecil found work again at another insurance company. While there, he noticed a sign nearby announcing a new building to house the publishing firm Benn Brothers Ltd. Through persistence, Cecil secured an interview and at 21, in January 1924, earned a contract with the firm.
(Above: Cecil Hunt in the grip of HC McNeile, who wrote the Bulldog Drummond novels under the pen name 'Sapper')
Benn Brothers specialised in trade journalism and Cecil joined the staff of The Hardware Trade Journal, and then did some work for The Electrician, and occasional reporting for The Cabinet Maker. After some months, he was transferred to The Chemical Age. Early in 1926, he was transferred again to the sub-editorship of The Fruit Grower. In the same year, Cecil married Kathleen, elder daughter of Mr and Mrs WH Dykes. Kathleen would go on to live well beyond 100 years of age, dying in 2011.
While working on The Fruit Grower, Cecil compiled the bestseller, Howlers. For years, he had been collecting schoolboy and schoolgirl howlers as a hobby, and suddenly had the idea of compiling a book of them. As originally conceived, the book would have embodied the howlers into a running narrative. Such an idea would later be made manifest in the classic parody history textbook 1066 And All That.
Cecil’s colleagues talked Cecil into presenting the howlers as discrete specimens, divided into categories (‘History’, ‘Geography’, etc). Howlers, published by Benn, became a standout success even before its first day, selling 10,000 copies before publication and selling 9,000 copies in the week before Christmas. Many successful sequels followed.
These Howlers books gave Cecil one of his happiest journalistic activities and the happiest aspect of all was the enormous correspondence he received from readers throughout the world, particularly from sick and isolated people who had been helped by the humour in his books. I feel the same way about my own work, including The Funny Dictionary (2018).
Cecil was given the editorship of The Export World, which later merged with The British Trade Journal. After the merge, Cecil was moved over to the book side of the business. The move, Cecil wrote, ‘led to many happy days’. His first activities in the book trade were in publicity and then as advertising manager as well.
(Above: Cecil Hunt with one of his collaborators, Heath Robinson)
After 5 years at Benn’s, Cecil sensed there would be few more opportunities for professional development at the firm. Audaciously, Cecil approached the Daily Mail and within two months of joining the newspaper’s staff became Fiction Editor of Associated Newspapers.
At the Daily Mail, Cecil met many celebrities, including HG Wells in Wells’ home. Cecil described Wells as ‘most unassuming in presence, gently polite and kind to casual contacts, but a brilliant conversationalist’. Cecil also met Donald Bradman many times.
Cecil worked at the Daily Mail for 8 years. Those 8 years were, in many ways, the happiest of his professional life. He left journalism ‘to save my body; it was clear that it needed saving; maybe to save my soul, though I was not as consistently sure of its claim to be saved.’
Cecil had become famous enough that in 1938, he was the face of trading card number 21 in a series of 50 cards for Churchman’s cigarettes (the ‘In Town Tonight’ series) — even though Cecil was a non-smoker.
(Above: Cecil Hunt appeared on a trading card in 1937. The description says: 'Cecil Hunt, Howler King of Highgate. Known as the Howler King of Highgate, Mr Cecil Hunt has for many years made a hobby of collecting original "schoolboy howlers", and has published six or seven volumes of them with great success. He was formerly on the staff of the Daily Mail and Evening News as Literary Editor, but has since gone into the publishing business. People write to him from every corner of the globe contributing "howlers"'. The card then presents three examples.)
After the Daily Mail, Cecil became London Editor of Blackie & Son, Glasgow publishers of educational and children’s books, which Cecil helped to transform into general publishers. ‘Much happy work was done and some books were published whose creation gave me pleasure’, Cecil wrote. He was with the firm for 2 years.
(Above: a pencil sketch of Cecil Hunt by John Fairfax Whiteside)
At the outbreak of World War II, Blackie & Son restricted themselves to educational and children’s books. Cecil’s job finished almost immediately. Cecil set himself up as a literary agent, the first 2 years of which ‘were disastrous’, but things improved in the third year and, by the fourth, Cecil was turning a profit.
Cecil was in London all through the blitz. In 1943, at age 40, Cecil’s one-man business no longer assured his exemption from service. Despite being selected for a propaganda job, the Ministry of Labour intervened and Cecil was called up for the Army. Then began, in Cecil’s words, ‘in many ways the unhappiest and certainly the most thwarted and least useful years of my life’. But, determined to portray an otherwise happy career, Cecil preferred to ‘leave much unsaid’ about this period. During the war, his wife Kathleen kept the literary agency running.
After the war, Cecil continued as a literary agent, continued writing, and lectured on the craft of the writer. In 1948, he conceived the idea of a national summer school for writers, which in 1949 became the Writers Circles' Summer School (1949–51) and then the Writers' Summer School, held at The Haye's House in Swanwick, formerly a prisoner-of-war camp. Cecil became the school's inaugural Chairman. A main purpose of the school was for successful writers to help the less successful.
(Above: Cecil Hunt (middle) and a group of speakers at the first Writers' Summer School in 1949)
After the frustrations of the war, the first Writers' School in 1949 was 'grasped as a new experience, almost as though we had been let out of school', a sentiment that Cecil evidently shared. The School in those early days owed most to Cecil's keeness, dedication, and business ability — even though, by this stage, Cecil had been told by his medical adviser to give up his business and go live in wide open spaces. Still, Cecil enjoyed temporary relief from his medical restraints sufficiently that the night before the first School opened, like a young schoolboy just home for the holidays, Cecil went skipping down the path to the estate's duck pond.
By 1952, Cecil relinquished Chairmanship of the School, evidently for health reasons, despite attempts to persuade him otherwise. Cecil kept away from the school for a year or two, but accepted an invitation to be a lecturer at the 1954 School, his subject being The Short Story. His widow, Kathleen, remembered Cecil was very much looking forward to being a lecturer at the 1954 School. But on 13 July 1954, Cecil suddenly collapsed and died that day, aged 51. His death certificate says he died from a coronary thombosis and coronary atheroma. He was given a post mortem without inquest.
20 years before his death, Cecil wrote that the end of life never worried him. A few years before his death, he wrote he would be content to have a tombstone with the epitaph: ‘Here he lies still’, no longer restless. His life had been 'full of innumerable, unforgettable events and alive with countless vivid personalities'. He quoted Thomas Carlyle: ‘Life is a little gleam of time between two eternities’. Yet how wondrously that gleam can shine.
Hopefully, some of that gleam, and some of Cecil Hunt’s zest for life, his hardwired curiosity and unflinching optimism, might live through the influence he has had on me and many others, including through The Funny Dictionary: An A–Z of Kids' Funny Definitions (2018).
(Above: Cecil Hunt in his later years)
1 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 18.
2 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 20.
3 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 20.
4 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 21.
5 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 45.
6 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 281.
7 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 133.
8 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 187.
9 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 61.
10 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 108.
11 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 139.
12 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 147.
13 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 147.
14 Nancy Martin, Venture of Faith (1983) 31 (quoting an early supporter of the Writers' School).
15 Nancy Martin, Venture of Faith (1983) 31.
16 Nancy Martin, Venture of Faith (1983) 69.
17 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 121.
18 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 103.
19 Cecil Hunt, Ink in my Veins (1948) 103.
20 Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935) 275.
‘He Had Ink in His Veins’, The Age Literary Supplement, 7 August 1948, 1.
Cecil Hunt, Author-Biography (1935).
Cecil Hunt, Ink in My Veins (1948).
Nancy Martin, Venture of Faith (1983.
Russell Ash, Howlers (1985).
Books by Cecil Hunt (as sole author and in collaboration with others)
1. Howlers (1928).
2. Howlers Omnibus (1928).
3. Fun With The Famous (1929).
4. Fresh Howlers (1930).
5. Quips (1930).
6. Fresh Howlers (1930).
7. The Book of Howlers (1930).
8. Honoured Sir (1931).
9. Howlers Encored (1931).
10. Here I Lie (1932).
11. Old Barty (1932).
12. Paddy For News (1933).
13. Late Dawning (1934).
14. Short Stories: How to Write Them (1934).
15. Author-Biography (1935).
16. Living by the Pen (1936).
17. The Fair Daughter (1936).
18. Further Howlers (1937).
19. Ripe Howlers (1937).
20. Hand-Picked Howlers (1937).
21. Why Editors Regret (1937).
22. More Hand-Picked Howlers (1938).
23. There’s Fun in Fleet Street (1938).
24. You Want to be a Journalist? (1938).
25. How to Write a Book (1939).
26. Lovers’ Log (1939).
27. Ripe Howlers (1939).
28. Hand-Picked Proverbs (1940).
29. How to Make the Best of Things (1940).
30. Laughing Gas (1940).
31. How to Build a New World (1941).
32. The Gallant Little Campeador (1941).
33. Five-Minute Fun (1942).
34. More Teasers (1942).
35. You’re Telling Me! (1942).
36. How to Run a Communal Home (1943).
37. Last Words (1944).
38. Wild Life in Autopsia (1944).
39. More Last Words (1946).
40. Our Wonderful Women (?) (1946?).
41. Booklovers’ Quiz (1947).
42. Ink in My Veins (1948).
43. Who Killed Cain? (1948).
44. Uncommon Prayers (1948).
45. A Dictionary of Word Makers (1949).
46. Sportslovers’ Quiz (1949).
47. Word Origins (1949).
48. More Uncommon Prayers (1951).
49. My Favourite Howlers (1951).
50. Uncommon Prayers for Younger People (1953).
51. Talk of the Town (1951).
52. British Customs and Ceremonies (1954).
53. This Shining Day (1955).