Thursday, October 13, 2011

"Ginger Meggs In Court Case" - Jimmy Bancks & The Strange Case Of Ginger Meggs


Australian culture and language as a whole owes more to Jim Bancks than it realises.  Bancks most famous creation, Ginger Meggs, has gone down in folklore as one of the longest running strips of all time, and in it’s time managed to introduce words such as Ocker and nicknames, such as Ginger himself, into the vernacular.  Bancks also took Ginger worldwide, and during his lifetime, he saw Ginger becomes one of, if not the, biggest success that Australian cartoons have ever seen.  Such was the impact of Ginger than when Us Fellers, the original strip’s title, went from black and white to colour, it became news, and when Ginger was slated to appear in the (Adelaide) Mail for the first time, it became front page news, unheard of at the time, sharing with the likes of Phar Lap winning a (then) record amount of money and the imminent passing of Dame Nellie Melba.  When Bancks passed away in 1952, there was a public outpouring of grief and, again, the news was reported, Australia wide, generally on front pages, with people both grieving for Bancks and also wondering what would become of Meggsy.  It very nearly wasn’t that way.  In 1951 Bancks would not only fight for what he believed to be right, but also for the right to own Ginger Meggs and his myriad of supporting characters, and what’s more, he won, setting a legal precedent that is still referred to today.

Bancks created ‘Us Fellers’ in the early 1920s and the strip first appeared in November, 1921, in the Sydney (Sunday) Sun.  Meggs first appeared under the moniker ‘Ginger Smith’ and although crudely drawn, was there from the start, albeit a minor character.  From there Meggs came to life in such a way that only cartoonists can explain, like Charles M Schulz and Snoopy, Meggs ‘spoke’ to Bancks in a way that is almost impossible to explain.  Meggs evolved into a complete character with his own unique personality and began the undisputed star of the strip.  The early days of Ginger Meggs offers us an opportunity to see into the life of a child in the depression era, from the fascination with sports – in particular cricket, a sport that Bancks personally relished – through to skipping school and getting caught, befuddled parents, a loving mother, childhood loves, good mates, faithful pets and bullies.  It was all there, and still is, a time capsule into a life that people of today often find alien and totally foreign.  Throughout all of Meggsy’s trials and tribulations, he managed to remain upbeat and was supremely confident, often tricking the local bully, Tiger Smith, sometimes getting a beating but sometimes getting away with it.  He was quick on his feet and had an almost rat like cunning both for getting into and out of trouble, and possessed a wit that often saw him in conflict with authoritarian figures, all of which he would combat with varying degrees of success.  Eventually Meggs was syndicated in Europe and America, and a full blown musical was staged, based on the strip.  In a fairly short time frame, Ginger Meggs became to the children of the 1920s and 1930s an escape and a hope, on a par with Don Bradman (who Meggs ‘met’ in his strip) as a shining beacon in a dark period.

In the late 1920s Bancks penetrated the overseas syndication market; by the time 'Us Fellers' changed its Sunday Sun title to 'Ginger Meggs' in November 1939, the strip had reached audiences in England and the United States of America as well as throughout Australia, and had been translated into French and Spanish for readers of La Presse in Montreal and El Muno in Buenos Aires. On visits overseas Bancks met fellow cartoonists, including Walt Disney; in 1948 Ginger appeared on American television. Plans to introduce the strip into Europe were largely thwarted by the outbreak of World War II, but it reached the Pacific via Guinea Gold, issued by the Australian Army.

Bancks, who moved from Melbourne to Sydney in 1926, shared some traits with his creation.  Bancks was especially fond of cricket, touring with the Australian side in America, and also hosting his own cricketing tours and exhibition games with current and ex-test players (usually in cohorts with test bowler turned cartoonist Arthur Mailey) and was active in racing circles.  Indeed Bancks’ involvement with race horses, and his celebrity, resulted in a minor scandal in 1949 when one of the horses he co-owned, Dalston, was banned for life after failing a swab at Randwick on New Years Day.  The resulting story saw a photo of Bancks linked to the story with only a minor mention of Dalston[1].

Ginger Meggs' first appearance
An extremely verbose man, Bancks was also in demand both as a writer and as an after-dinner speaker for a variety of functions, roles that he seemed to relish with joy.  His kindness was such that, in 1946[2], he established a scholarship for the amount of ₤1,000, a sizable amount of the time (adjusted for inflation, the same amount would be the equivalent to just over $60,000 today), especially when you take into consideration that the average annual wage, of the time, was roughly ₤2,500, a brand new house cost just over ₤5,600 and a new car was just over ₤1,000 on average.  The scholarship was established to enable a black and white artist (that being a cartoonist), under the age of 25, to study aboard, mainly in the USA, where opportunities were plentiful and networking far easier.  Announced on the ABC on the 1st of February, Bancks was keen to see others get opportunities that he was denied when he started out, and also wanted to share his insights into the world of illustration.  “Interest and amusement must be sustained, “commented Bancks at the time.  “Draughtsmanship is an asset, and the story is the thing.”  Bancks went on to explain how he loved what he did and that the Ginger Meggs characters were as real to him as his own family.  Both his unbridled joy of his work and the charm of his characters were evident with every strip.

In 1949 Banck’s long term contract with Associated Newspapers was coming to an end.  Bancks entered negotiations with the strength that a long term strip brings – Meggs had been going for nearly thirty years by this stage and was still the biggest and most popular Australian strip of the period.  Although strongly courted by Consolidated Press, with direct negotiations by none other than Sir Frank Packer himself, Bancks re-signed with Associated Press on the 27th of March, 1949.  The deal was for ten years, with a guaranteed income of ₤80 per week, an incredible amount of the time when the average weekly wage was a mere £6/19/11.  In today’s terms, Bancks would have been earning nearly $5,000 per week, before tax, a handsome sum in anyone’s language.  In exchange for the money, however, a number of clauses were also built into the contract, including the publication of an annual, and to a licence for the company to use the copyright in the event of the death of the defendant, which basically meant that, if Bancks passed away, Associated Press would be able to claim the copyright of the character and wrest control away from the Bancks family.  Sir Frank Packer completely understood Bancks’ wanting to remain with the newspaper that had fostered him for years, and left a standing invite for Bancks; if ever he wanted to cross over to his own newspaper chain then a deal would be done straight away.  The terms of the deal weren’t that complex.  Associated Press would publish Ginger Meggs, in full colour, on the front page of the Sunday Sun’s comic supplement and pay Bancks ₤80 per week; in return Bancks would provide Associated Press with an original strip every week for a ten year period, with the contract ending in 1959.  Turning out new strips wasn’t an issue for Bancks as he enjoyed the work and had no end of ideas, however Associated Press would find their end of the deal harder to fulfil. 


In early 1951, less than two years after Bancks signed his contract Associated Press broke the deal, three times running.  Instead of publishing Meggs, in colour, on the front of the comic supplement, the strip appeared on page three.  This was due to a newsprint shortage, which required the move, an excuse that Bancks was not satisfied with.  As the court later explained, “In the second half of December 1950 or the first half of January 1951, owing to a shortage of newsprint, the company decided that it would be compelled to drop its letterpress comic section printed in newsprint and print the comic section by its rotogravure process, in which newsprint is not used. It decided to print the comic as an inset in the rotogravure section of the colour magazine. The presses used for printing this section only print certain pages of the section in full colour, namely pp. 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 14 and 16 respectively. To produce the comic as an inset it was necessary, if a front page of the inset in full colour was required, for the reader to reverse-fold the inset as it was taken out of the paper. This would make p. 9 of the colour magazine p. 1 of the comic section when reverse-folded.

“In the "Sunday Sun and Guardian" of 11th February 1951 as it was folded the front page of the comic section was p. 7 and so numbered and on this page there was a comic in sepia. The defendant's comic appeared on p. 9, that is, on the third page of the comic section. This page was headed "Sunday Sun Comics" and became the front page of the comic section only if the reader chose to reverse-fold the inset as it was taken out of the newspaper. The same thing happened in the publications of 18th and 25th February 1951. In the publication of 4th March 1951, following the purported rescission, a change was made. The comic section was used as an envelope for the magazine section and the defendant's comic appeared on the front page of the envelope. It was the practice of the defendant to keep the plaintiff supplied in advance with drawings of his comic for ten weekly publications. The plaintiff did not inform the defendant of its intention to produce the comic section by rotogravure process instead of by print until the magazine and comic sections for eight weekly publications commencing on 11th February had been prepared[3].”

What wasn’t revealed in court was that Bancks had recently suffered a heart attack.  There is a theory that Associated Press were beginning to protect their own interests by moving Meggs to page three, that way if the worst did happen, then it would be easier to replace a strip on the inside of the supplement, as opposed to the front page.  After contacting Associated Press and not receiving the assurances that he wanted, Bancks decided to end the contract early and go elsewhere.  Bancks placed a call to Frank Packer who quickly and eagerly drafted a contract and signed Bancks, and Ginger Meggs, to his own chain of publications.  As poaching goes, the move of Bancks and Meggs from Associated Press to arch rival Consolidated Press in Australia was on a par with the William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battles over The Yeller Kid in America in the late 1800s.   Associated Press promptly filed court action to both prevent the contract from being cancelled and to also prevent Bancks from using Ginger Meggs anywhere else, restricting his right to even sketch the character.  Backed by the Packer Empire, Bancks decided to burrow in and fight.

The resulting court case was front page news for the first half of 1951, Australia wide.  The implications of the case were far reaching, Bancks was not only fighting for what he believed was right, but he was also fighting for ownership and control of Ginger Meggs.  By the terms of the court documents filed Associated Press demanded that Bancks be restricted from drawing Meggs for anyone other than them until March 1959.  Not only was Bancks prevented from drawing Meggs for anyone other than Associated Press, he was also ordered to refrain from drawing, “…any other character resembling ‘Ginger’ (Meggs)[4]” for the remainder of the contract.   The court case began on the 3rd of April, 1951, in Sydney.

Straight off the bat Associated Press denied that the contract had been breached and that any departure of the practices outlined in the contract was done with Bancks prior knowledge and approval.  They also contended that, during a conversation with Bancks in February, Bancks had informed the paper that the relegation of Meggs to page three had made the strip, “...appear relatively unimportant and some of his friends, including Frank Packer, had commented on it.”[5]  Bancks’s own affidavit revealed that he signed with Packer’s Consolidated Press on the 27th of February, believing that he had no other option than to move the strip.  Associated Press replied that the newsprint shortage had been explained to Bancks fully and that the move to Consolidated Press was due to Packer offering more money, per week, and not a breach of contract by Associated Press.  In a damning exchange, affidavits recounted that the editor of the Sunday Sun, Lindsay Clinch, had phoned Bancks and explained the issues at hand and, although he didn’t want to, “…appear tough,” he did reassure Bancks that the strip would soon be back on page one[6].  Bancks then went on to state that he had said, “You know this is breaking my contract,” to which Clinch replied, “Yes, I know, but I want you to help us.”  Bancks went on to state that on, “On the morning of February 11th, (Frank Packer) managing director of Consolidated Press, had phoned him and said the "Sun" had "buried 'Ginger Meggs'.”[7]  Bancks also claimed that an un-named employee of the Sun had contacted him on the 23rd of February and told him that the editors weren’t being entirely truthful with their explanation.  As a direct result of that conversation, Bancks, “On the next night he asked Packer if an offer, which had been standing for 10 years, was still open, and was told it was[8].” 

It took Justice Roper a mere two days to hear the evidence and make his decision.  On the 5th of March, 1951, Bancks won the first round as the Justice Roper[9] upheld the right of Bancks to take Ginger Meggs to Consolidated Press, explaining that the publication of the strip on the first page of the comic supplement was a vital aspect of the contract, that Bancks had no assurance that the placement of the strip on page wouldn’t continue and that the contract had been breached by Associated Press, thus providing Bancks with enough justification to repudiate the contract.  This was front page news for some newspapers, and, predictably, Associated Press filed an appeal to the High Court[10] under the grounds that Justice Roper had erred in his decision that the front page was a vital part of the contract.  The hearing was duly set for the 30th of April, 1951.

It took little over a week for the High Court to dismiss the appeal, thus enabling Bancks to finally take Ginger Meggs where he chose to.  The court vindicated Bancks in more ways than one, stating that, “He was not in ordinary employee of the company.  He was employed as a comic artist and his true work is to produce this weekly drawing. It was for this production that his substantial weekly salary was principally payable.  It was what he was engaged to do.  It would be strange if his obligation was a condition of the contract while the undertaking of the plaintiff was a subsidiary term, a breach of which would only sound in damages.”

In the present case, the undertaking of the plaintiff company that each weekly full-page drawing will be presented on the front page of the comic section formed a condition, a substantial failure in the performance of which would enable the defendant to treat the contract as at an end The plaintiff committed three successive breaches of this condition, and thereupon the defendant was certainly entitled to treat the contract as discharged[11].”

In early June, 1951, the Packer press took out full page ads[12] triumphantly announcing the new home for Ginger Meggs – the Sunday Telegraph and other Consolidated Press Sunday newspapers the country wide.  There Meggs would be presented in full colour and the impending launch was celebrated with a series of competitions designed to get kids drawn in.  Once Meggs began to appear the circulation of the Sunday Telegraph began to increase substantially.  With both work and financial security, and making more money than he had ever made before, Jimmy Bancks was now set for life.  Sadly it was a short life.

On the 1st of July, 1952, Bancks passed away from coronary vascular disease at his home in Point Piper.  His last ever Meggs strip lay forever unfinished on his drawing board.  He had lived long enough to see Meggs celebrate his 30th anniversary, and such was the fame of both Bancks and Meggs, his passing was, as with most things Bancks related, front page news[13].  His passing created a genuine sense of grief amongst Australians, with the NSW Premier of the time, Joseph Cahill, summing him up perfectly.  “He was, in truth, “commented Cahill, “the Walt Disney, the Chic Young and the Jimmy Hatlo of this country.  His humour was known and appreciated by people of all countries and, in its own way, attainted a degree of national importance.”  Frank Packer stated that, “His understanding of human nature - the dashing to the depths the hopes and ambitions, or the realization of castles in the air, as depicted in his comic strips over the last 30 years - stamps him as a genius in the understanding of his fellow man and the problems that face him from day to day".

Bancks’s legacy remains visible for all to see.  His creation, Ginger Meggs, is in its 90th year and still going strong.  The other legacy that Bancks has left is that of a legal precedent that is referred to worldwide in contract negotiations.  The first legacy was intentional; the second was purely unintentional yet just as important and valid.  When a contract is repudiated and the case goes to court, the precedent that is Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks [1951] HCA 24; (1951) 83 CLR 322 (11 May 1951) is almost always the first case cited for the side that has cancelled the contract and re-signed elsewhere.  More importantly, the case ensured that Bancks would not only own his creation, but be able to pass it on down through his family, something that might not have been possible had he remained with Associated Press.

The author with James Kemsley
Bancks also left a sizable estate, for the period, but also left the rights to Meggs to his daughter.  The estate, which was valued at ₤13,634 in 1952 (equivalent to $ 426,889 in 2010) was reduced to ₤7,953 after taxes and costs.  Bancks had bequeathed ₤1,000 to his sister and brother-in-law, which left a decent amount of ₤6,953, which would be over $217,000 in today’s money, plus the ownership of Ginger Meggs.  Bancks had built up enough strips to cover the period between his passing and the hiring of a new cartoonist, and Packer himself offered his services as an advisor, clearly to protect his own investment, and to also assist the family of an old friend.  A few years before he passed away, Bancks had himself suggested this succession plan, stating that he would, “…continue to draw Ginger as long as I am able and as long as the public wants him. Then perhaps I may hand Ginger across to another artist[14].”  Eventually Ron Vivian was selected from a vast talent pool; he drew the strip until his own passing in 1972.  Lloyd Piper was hired by the Bancks family to replace Vivian; he drew the strip until his own passing in 1984, whereupon he was also replaced, this time by James Kemsley.  Kemsley was a man whose attitudes closely mirrored that of Bancks, he was a cricket tragic, he was a kind, gentleman, generous, witty and intelligent and always free with his time.  Sadly Kemsley passed away in 2007, a victim of motor neurone disease.  Shortly before his passing, James Kemsley passed the torch to young Perth cartoonist Jason Chatfield, who has continued to draw Ginger Meggs into the 21st century.  2011 marks the 90th anniversary of Ginger Meggs and there’s every reason to believe that he’ll make it to 100 and well beyond. 
A recent strip by Jason Chatfield
Original 'Us Fellers' from Bancks, circa 1935
Ginger Meggs by James Kemsley


[1] Barrier Miner, Wednesday 26th January, 1949 page 1
[2] The Canberra Times, Monday 2nd February, 1946 page 3
[3] Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks [1951] HCA 24; (1951) 83 CLR 322 (11 May 1951)
[4] The Canberra Times, Thursday 8th March, 1951 page 4
[5] Morning Bulletin, Wednesday, 4th April, 1951 page 4
[6] Affidavit of Lindsay Clinch (Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks)
[7] Affidavit of James Charles Bancks (Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks)
[8] Affidavit of James Charles Bancks (Associated Newspapers Ltd v Bancks)
[9] The Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 5th April, 1951 page 5
[10] The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 7th April, 1951 page 5
[11] The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 12th May, 1952 page 9
[12] The Australian Women's Weekly, Saturday 2nd June, 1951 page 2
[13] Sun Herald Tuesday, 1st July, 1952 Page 1
[14] The Mail, Saturday 8th July, 1952 page 7


3 comments:

Tristan Bancks said...

I love this. Thanks Daniel. It adds to what I knew of Jim and Ginger through the work of Lindsay Foyle and my own research. Really valuable stuff. Thank you for taking the time. I love the image of Jim and Sheena drawing together.

Daniel Best said...

Tristan, it's my pleasure! I grew up reading the old Sunbeam annuals, along with Ginger in the Sunday Mail here in Adelaide. Later I got to be pals with James Kemsley, so Ginger and Jim Bancks has always been close to my heart. Glad I can help shed some light on him for you. Feel free to ask anything - and I'll be more than happy to send over my own research if you want.

Lindsay Foyle said...

It is a nice read Daniel. You have obviously done a lot of work. Well done.