Lynn Street Cowboys

Duration: 5:01 minutes
Accession No: TWCMS : 2009.389
This story has been viewed 7650 times

Keith's story is about early television and his collection of American western comics from the 1950s and 1960s.

By Keith Robson

Other information

This story was inspired by a television from the collections at the Museum of Hartlepool.

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Video transcript

Inspired by the shop fittings, the wonderful Co-op, and the vintage television sets seen at Beamish, I've brought along a small collection of late fifties/early sixties American comics representing many western television series that were incredibly popular during the baby boomer era. These mainly came from Woolworth's in Lynn Street or the wonderful comic stall on the market.

Early television was exclusively the domain of the BBC under the straight-laced Lord Reith, and broadcast many dull and worthy programmes considered to be ‘good for you' rather than entertaining. The early valve and cathode ray tube TV sets were subject to all kinds of disruption from 'snow', 'picture roll', distortion and other outside electrical interference (a neighbour using a vacuum cleaner was enough). Being still a novelty, we watched everything giving full undivided attention to this flickering 12 inch black and white box in the corner. The programmes were less visual but the writing was much more literate, closer to 'radio with pictures', in fact 'Gunsmoke' the longest running Western series ever that ran for 21 years began on radio.

When the brash new ITV network arrived in the form of Tyne Tees Television around 1957 everything changed and more populist programmes appeared. At the same time, sales and rentals of television sets increased, in spite of a condescending disapproval from teachers with warnings that the exciting new medium would rot our brains, ruin our education (because we wouldn't do our homework) and encourage us talk in 'slang' and turn into juvenile delinquents or teddy boys. Basically, if it was fun, it was forbidden!

Both ITV and the BBC (more reluctantly, in order to compete) began importing exciting series made on film by the big Hollywood studios with all the gloss and action that was so sadly lacking in the home-grown product. Vulgar (in other words, immensely popular) series like 'Gun Law' (the British title for 'Gunsmoke'),'Cheyenne', 'Maverick' and 'Wagon Train' could empty the streets, and were the talk of the school playground.

Supporting these popular westerns came the spin-off comics produced by Dell/Western Printing and Lithographing of Racine Wisconsin, who were actually a subsidiary of Disney and this is reflected in the high quality of the artwork often drawn by ex -Disney animators, which was a strong influence on my own drawing. Being Disney, they felt 'above' the 'comics code' that was imposed on all other U.S. comics at the time. Instead they included a 'pledge to parents' assuring that the comic only contained 'good clean fun'.

Initially, a Manchester company, World Distributors had the licence to reprint these comics in the UK and they were produced by the Co-op printers at Reddish in Stockport and distributed to the larger Co-ops and selected newsagents. So, my first encounter with these comics was one Saturday morning in 1960 out shopping with my mother in the Co-op arcade. There was the thrill of being unexpectedly confronted by a display of titles, because the Co-op had never sold comics before, then the dilemma of deciding which one to buy! I went for the 'Wagon Train' which was the most popular show on TV at the time.  I went back week after week and thus began my (still ongoing) collection. The WDL reprints cost a shilling, but soon the directly imported 10 cent American originals were appearing in Woolworths for just ninepence! My collection grew.  Any gaps could be filled by trading old Beanos and Dandys etc for missing issues on the comic stall in the covered market. I've included just a few of the best remembered titles here.

The phenomenal popularity of westerns on TV lasted over ten years, peaking in the early sixties when there seemed to be at least one western on every night. The stories always had a strong moral, and contrary to the criticism of worthy adults (who I suspect never properly watched them) they were NOT full of slang and violence, and neither were the comics which were reviled by teachers for the same reason. They were certainly a strong influence on my wanting to become a comic illustrator and few years on, in October 1968, my leaving Hartlepool to work for publishers D.C.Thomson in Dundee coincided with the demise of Lynn Street where so many of my comics were bought.

The American comics, were often referred to as 'comic books' and with glossy covers and a slightly smaller format, outlasted the more 'throwaway' British letterpress Thomson and Fleetway comics that were usually thrown out with the newspapers every week. Happily the westerns have survived and can still be picked up on ebay, albeit at ever increasing prices.

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