William Fletcher Thomas (1863-1938) Of the several artists who drew Ally Sloper, William Fletcher Thomas maintained the longest association with this popular cartoon character, working on Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday between 1888 and 1916, and again when the comic was briefly revived for a few months of 1922-23. Accepting the visual style established by William Giles Baxter, he managed to sustain both its surreal imagination and grotesque vigour. William Fletcher Thomas was born at 4 St John’s Place, Broughton, Salford, near Manchester, the son of James Thomas, a cotton yarn agent, and Louisa née Kershaw. He was possibly educated, from 1872, at The Free Grammar School of Queen Elizabeth at Heath, near Halifax, Yorkshire. By 1881, the family had moved a little south of Broughton to 69 Shrewsbury Road, Stretford. James had become a machinery agent, while William was apprenticed to a calico print designer and studying part-time at an art school.
Following a brief period of study in Paris, he started to publish drawings in the Manchester periodical, Random Readings, of Wit, Wisdom, Anecdote and Adventure (which folded in April 1882), and the Leeds ‘satirical journal’, Toby: The Yorkshire Tyke (which ran from 1883 to 1885). In 1887, he married Emily Parkinson at Altrincham, Cheshire.
By 1886, Thomas had moved to London and was contributing to Judy and Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, both published by the Dalziel Brothers and, at the time, edited by Charles Henry Ross. A year later, William Giles Baxter, the chief cartoonist of Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, was dismissed for being persistently unpunctual in delivering the front-page cartoon. Will Owen initially succeeded Baxter but, in 1888, Thomas replaced him, and extended rather than altered the style and mood that Baxter had established. Through the early 1890s, he supplemented his income from the Dalziels with contributions to other periodicals, including Harry Furniss’s Lika Joko (1894), Punch (1895) and The New Budget.
By 1891, the Thomases were living at ‘Primrose’, Brunswick Road, Sutton, Surrey, with their one-year old son, Gilbert. A decade later, they had moved to the North London Borough of Enfield and, in 1911, gave their address as 124 Edenbridge Road, Bush Hill Park, Edmonton. At some point in the 1890s, they began to holiday regularly at Southwold, in Suffolk, and seem to have spent increasing amounts of time there, taking Lydstep House, 3 South End, as a second home by 1901. In that year, Thomas described himself as a ‘landscape painter’ in the census, and exhibited a view of Walberswick, just south of Southwold, at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
Despite that description, Thomas continued his career as an illustrator, remaining the mainstay of Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday until it folded in September 1916, and contributing to The Captain (1910-11, 1915-16, including covers) and The Red Magazine (1913).
Thomas also produced designs for postcards, including a set of golfing subjects (1910), inspired by his own enthusiasm for the sport. He had been a member of Bush Hill Park Golf Club for at least a decade, and at one time served as its Honorary Secretary.
When Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday was revived in November 1922, Thomas returned to it and drew its chief strip. However, after 23 weeks, the comic’s title was changed to Half-Holiday, and Thomas’s ‘Ally-Sloper’ strip was dropped. He then turned to other periodicals for work, including The Crusoe Magazine (1924-25).
A drawing in Southwold Museum, which Thomas made in 1923, of the lifeboatman, Sam May, provides evidence that he was still visiting the Suffolk coastal town from his home in Edmonton into the 1920s.
Following the foundation of the Enfield Art Circle in 1933, Thomas became its Chairman. He died in Edmonton on 21 March 1938. In writing his obituary in The Times, James Thorpe concluded that, ‘he will be remembered by those who knew him as a gentle, generous, kindly soul, with whom friendship was a precious privilege’.
Further reading: James Thorpe, ‘Mr Fletcher-Thomas. Memories of “Ally Sloper”’ [Obituary], The Times, 26 March 1938, page 17