Herbert Bird Tourtel

11th September 2020
Priaulx Library collection, The Monster Rupert 1948 by Mary Tourtel

This November it will be 100 years since the first publication of a Rupert Bear story in the Daily Express newspaper. The intrepid little bear made his debut on November 8 1920; not a comic-strip, not a cartoon, but a ‘drawing’. Newsprint was short, and his creators were limited to one frame a day, either one large panel or a row of four small drawings. Occasionally the story was written in prose with a little marginal decoration. 

Rupert Bear was the invention of Mary Tourtel, a book illustrator, who worked on Rupert until he was handed over to Alfred Bestall in 1935. She was born Mary Caldwell in Canterbury, Kent, in 1874. Her father and brother were celebrated stained-glass artists and stonemasons who were associated with Canterbury Cathedral for many years, while another brother moved to South Africa, where he became a well-known painter of animals. Mary went to art school and became a professional illustrator, producing her first books in 1897. She died in 1948 and is buried with her husband in Canterbury. It is through her husband, Herbert Bird Tourtel, that Rupert Bear comes to be linked to Guernsey.

Herbert Bird Tourtel was born in St Peter Port in 1874 to Peter Tourtel, a draper, originally of St Martin’s parish, and his wife Mary Ann, née Bird. Herbert was the eldest of six children and lived when very young with his family at 4, Lefevre Street, next door to his grandparents, a shopkeeper called William Warren Bird and his wife Nancy Collenette. By the time of the 1891 census his grandfather had become blind and the Tourtel family were running their drapery business out of Rectory House opposite the Markets.

Herbert attended Elizabeth College on a late scholarship from the Boys' Intermediate School and in 1895 his excellence in Divinity took him up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He published two books in that year – at the age of 21 - through F B Guerin (and the Guernsey author’s London publisher of choice, Simpkin and Marshall): a book of poetry, The Coming of Ragnarökand a small sixpenny book of short stories, Child of the Cliffs and other Guernsey Stories, copies of which we have in the Library.

In 1900 he married Mary Caldwell in Eton, and they moved to Pinner. He was working as a journalist at the Daily Express, where he rose quickly to become assistant, or ‘night’ editor. The Express needed a children’s cartoon to rival the success of ‘Teddy Tail of the Daily Mail’ (a mouse), and legend has it that Herbert suggested his wife might come up with an idea, and she did – that of Rupert Bear. The library has a copy of The Monster Rupert of 1947 (displayed above), showing Mary Tourtel’s preferred colours for Rupert (originally a brown bear) and his clothes, which are quieter than Alfred Bestall’s later famous red jumper and yellow scarf. Herbert wrote the captions, often in poetry. George Perry comments in his book, A Bear’s Life, ‘Tourtel’s verses enhanced the story, but rarely achieved literary merit, or even competence.’¹ This is almost certainly an underestimation of Herbert's contribution.

Mary and Herbert had no children. They spent their time travelling the world and were aviation pioneers in their biplane, Mary being one of the first woman aviators. They were a glamorous pair, nomadic, choosing to live in hotels. As his obituary says, Herbert worked extremely hard and his devotion to duty during the Boer War and later the First World War wore him out; he died in a German Sanatorium at the age of 57 in June, 1931.

His obituary in The Elizabethan reads:

Tourtel, Herbert Bird, No. 2498.

Born Jan. 7, 1874. Entered College, 1887. Left College, 1892. Died June 6, 1931.

When the present writer first met him (in January, 1889), H. B. Tourtel had reached the Fifth Form (German), and had already made his mark as a powerful swimmer, a humourist, and a boy of brains and character—in fact a personality. Prefects were not confined to the small Sixth Form of those days, and Tourtel was among the very first to be selected. He took a keen interest in the new Dramatic, Literary and Debating Societies, and he was an epochmaking editor of the new Elizabethan, doing the work with zest and originality, and not (as is usual) under mild protest.

He left in 1892, having won the chief mathematical prize, and having obtained his Lower and Higher Certificates—the " School " Certificate had not yet been invented.

As he came to us by the Scholarship Ladder from the Intermediate School his time at College was limited, a loss to himself and to us. During the next few years I rather lost sight of him, but he published a small volume of poems which I still possess. My copy is inscribed : " To the man who taught me the meaning of Forgiveness." I would not mention this were it not a sign of a good heart and a tender conscience, for I have never discovered what it was that required forgiveness !

" Contrariwise."

In 1895 he emerged as a Subsizar of Trinity College, Cambridge, winning his election by Divinity work. Again my memory fails me, but are not these things written in Vol. II. of the Register, now in the Printer's hands ? Anyhow, we soon heard that he had obtained work as a Journalist, and, as the subjoined extracts show, he rapidly rose to be Assistant Editor of his paper, The Daily Express.

I took the opportunity of one of his flying visits to Guernsey to ask him to report progress at Sunday supper. I shall always remember that evening—the broad-shouldered man of the world, bursting with energy, information and humour. I remember his saying how, during the Boer war, he was always within two minutes reach of his office, by night as well as day. He, told us of his periodical descents upon the Daily Express staff. " Wherever I see a head I hit it " sounds rather drastic, but I am sure the head hit understood and liked it. An appointment to show me over the works somehow fell through. One of his remarks at the supper table sticks in my mind, and may be worth passing on—" You may speculate, if speculate you must, with ONE TENTH of your capital."

As the extracts given below tell us, his terrific effort during the Boer War was repeated and surpassed during the Great War—alas, with harmful results to his health. When will these tremendous workers realise that they are only human after all'! The pity of it !

He was a brother of Mrs. W. Rolleston. To her and his other relatives in Guernsey we would express our deep sympathy, and to Mrs. H. B. Tourtel.

The following appeared in the Guernsey Evening Press:—

"The Daily Express says the death is reported from Bad Nauheim, in Germany, of Mr. H. B. Tourtel, who was for many years one of the chief executives of the Daily Express editorial offices. Mr. Tourtel, a Guernseyman, came straight from Cambridge to Fleet Street in 1901. He joined the Daily Express in the following year as a reporter, and at once made a reputation as a writer, as well as a man of initiative, resource and wide knowledge. Promotion came rapidly. In a short time he had risen to the post of assistant editor.

The strain of the war, during which time he never took a holiday but was at his desk many hours a day, eventually undermined his constitution, and he was obliged to relinquish work seven years ago. He retired to Italy, where he lived in Florence with his wife, Mary Tourtel, the talented creator of " Rupert the Bear." He was 57 years of age. Tourtel had the reputation in Fleet Street of being a man who could work brilliantly for days and nights on end without tiring. He had also the reputation of being one of the most loyal colleagues and friends in the street of romance." 

 ¹ Rupert: A Bear's Life, by George Perry with Albert Bestall, Pavilion Books, London, 1985, from which some of the biographical information about Mary in this article has been taken. For more information taken from Herbert Tourtel's diary up to 1919, see Smith, Howard, Rupert: the bear facts, Canterbury Museums and Galleries, 2020, and by the same author, 'Rupert the anthropomorphic bear,' Review of the Guernsey Society, LXXVI (2), Summer 2020, pp. 56 ff., in the Priaulx Library.