B. M. Croker (1848-1920)

Richard Dalby

Many years ago, while collecting the first editions of Bram Stoker, my heart would often leap when apparently spotting his rarely encountered name in dimly lit alcoves of second-hand bookshops, only to find that I had actually misread the similar gilt lettering of “B. M. Croker”. Having no special taste for this other writer’s Indian or Irish romances, I usually disregarded them.

At that time B. M. Croker was only remembered (by a shrinking number of admirers) as a once-popular bestselling novelist. Her supernatural tales had sunk into total neglect, and none had ever been revived in anthologies (not even by Hugh Lamb or Peter Haining).

I first became aware of her ghost stories after buying the first two volumes of Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction (May to December 1895) in the original cloth richly decorated by Walter Crane. The Christmas Number contained a fine array of weird tales including “The Story of a Ghost” by Violet Hunt, “The Red Hand” by Arthur Machen, “The Case of Euphemia Raphash” by M. P. Shiel, and “Number Ninety” by Mrs. B. M. Croker.

I eventually reprinted this latter tale (Croker’s debut in any genre anthology) in the first of my six Christmas anthologies, Ghosts for Christmas (Michael O’Mara, 1988).

I then researched her bibliography which amounted to forty-nine titles (forty-two novels and seven short story collections), of which only a small fraction were listed in her Who’s Who entry, and gradually unearthed all the very scarce collections which had remained out-of-print for nearly seventy years and contained a surprisingly good variety of ghost stories.

Like “Number Ninety”, several of the other tales were set specifically in the Christmas period—obviously designed for late Victorian and Edwardian Christmas Numbers—and most had a higher “macabre” and grisly content than was usual at that time in seasonal weird tales, especially when compared to Mrs. Oliphant, Mrs. Molesworth, and Mrs. Henry Wood.

Apart from “Number Ninety”, the only other Croker ghost story to reach a wide audience in the past decade has been “To Let”, reprinted in both the Oxford Anthology Victorian Ghost Stories (1991) and Readers Digest’s Great Ghost Stories (1997) which stated that “her novels have not stood the test of time, but her shorter fiction is as enjoyable today as when it was first written, providing a vivid insight into the day-to-day lives of the British in India”.

B. M. Croker was one of the most popular and best-known novelists in the English-speaking world over a forty-year period, and is very well documented. Like several of her equally busy contemporaries, notably L. T. Meade, Rosa Mulholland, and Charlotte Riddell, she came from old-established Irish family.

Bithia Mary Sheppard was born in 1849, the only daughter of Rev. William Sheppard, Rector of Kilgefin, Co. Roscommon, who died suddenly seven years later. She was educated at Rockferry, Cheshire, and at Tours in France. Her favourite recreations were riding and reading.

In 1871 she married John Stokes Croker, an officer in the 21st Royal Scots and Munster Fusiliers. His family, the Crokers of Bally Maguarde, Co. Limerick, claimed direct descent from Sir John Croker, standard bearer to King Edward IV.

Following common tradition as a Victorian soldier’s wife, Bithia accompanied her husband to India, where he served for several years in Madras and Burma. They had one child, Gertrude Eileen (always called “Eileen”). They later lived in Bengal, and at a hill-station in Wellington (where many of her early stories were written), very similar to the one described in “To Let”.

After the first ten years of marriage and motherhood, she began writing novels and short stories (like “The Ghost in the Dâk Bunglow” for London Society in 1882) to occupy the long hot days while her husband was away. Always a keen sportsman, he enjoyed a great deal of big game shooting.

Both the writing and eventual publication of her first two novels, Proper Pride and Pretty Miss Neville, with her young daughter Eileen’s providential rescue of the manuscript from the flames, were humorously described by Mrs. Croker in her interview with Helen C. Black in Pen, Pencil, Baton and Mask (Spottiswood, 1896).

Proper Pride (Ward & Downey, 1882), the first of her long series of Anglo-Indian romances to be published, was also her only novel to appear anonymously. The story has some lively military chapters set in Afghanistan, based directly on her husband’s exploits.

Pretty Miss Neville, published in three volumes by Tinsley in 1803, was the first of her novels—directly credited to “B. M. Croker”—to attract widespread attention; and among its most distinguished admirers was Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone, who was seen to be absorbed in its pages while seated on the front bench in the House of Commons! This compulsive tale is narrated by the title-character, a faithless coquette in the Indian station of Mukkapore.

All her eleven lengthy novels from Pretty Miss Neville up to A Third Person and Married or Single? (both 1895) were published in the traditional “three-decker” format (@ 31/6), before passing quickly into a series of one-volume reprints priced @ 6/-, 5/-, 2/6, 2/-, 1/-, and 6d. Proper Pride and Pretty Miss Neville reached their sixth and fifth editions respectively by 1887, a sure sign of their great popularity.

Colonel Croker was on half-pay in the mid-80s, so the money his wife received from London publishers was undoubtedly welcome to ensure a comfortable existence in the confined circles of upper-class colonial life so accurately described in her stories.

After two novels for Sampson Low—Some One Else (1885) and A Bird of Passage (1886), the latter set in the Andaman Islands, where the Crokers lived for several months—she achieved her greatest success to date with Diana Barrington: A Romance of Central India (Ward & Downey, 1888), another rousing story of Anglo-Indian life in a military station, which drew on the author’s close intimacy with Irish character as well as her sympathetic knowledge of the Indian native.

For her time, Mrs. Croker was always unusually sympathetic to the India native population, as one reviewer of Diana Barrington observed: “She does not regard the natives as ‘niggers’ but bears eloquent testimony to their courtesy, chivalry and charity.”

Any Englishman in a Croker tale who displayed antipathy or insulting behaviour towards a native Indian was sure to be a villain, and (especially in her ghost stories) eventually met their macabre just deserts.

Many of her novels contrived to have a strong Irish (rather than Anglo)-Indian connection, as in three sagas for F. V. White: Two Masters (1890), Interference (1891), and A Third Person (1895). Interference, which was serialised in Belgravia magazine throughout 1891, begins with fox-hunting in Ireland and ends with husband-hunting at an Indian hill-station, with many calamities and misunderstandings in between.

As virtually every family in late-Victorian Britain had at least one member serving in either Ireland or India, the great majority of readers could enjoy and identify with Mrs. Croker’s highly entertaining and fast-moving blockbusters.

On her husband’s retirement in 1892 (at the age of 47), the Crokers went to live at Lordello in Co. Wicklow (south of Dublin), a picturesque setting well described by Helen C. Black in her interview published four years later.

Having worked haphazardly with a literary agent and four different publishers at long-distance from India, Mrs. Croker was now able to settle more securely with two regular publishers, the old-established fiction factory Chatto & Windus, and the much newer firm of Methuen.

With Chatto & Windus she published A Family Likeness: A sketch in the Himalayas (1892), Mr. Jervis: A Romance of the Indian Hills (1894), The Real Lady Hilda (1896), Beyond the Pale (1897), Miss Balmain’s Past (1898), Infatuation (1899), Terence (1899; with six plates by Sidney Paget), The Cat’s-Paw (1902; with twelve plates by Fred Pegram), and The Spanish Necklace (1907; with eight plates by Fred Pegram). These were all perennial bestsellers, and had renewed life for another twenty or thirty years as large mass-market paperbacks. Their wonderfully evocative and colourful pictorial covers can be seen prominently displayed in Sixpenny Wonderfuls (Chatto & Windus/Hogarth Press, 1985), a survey of Chatto’s “6d gems from the past” alongside Ouida, Walter Besant, Wilkie Collins, and other great names.

Besides reviving some of her earliest successes (Proper Pride, Pretty Miss Neville, Diana Barrington) as sixpenny paperbacks, Chatto & Windus also published four collections of short stories by B. M. Croker in quick succession: “To Let” (1893), Village Tales and Jungle Tragedies (1895; later reprinted as Jungle Tales), In the Kingdom of Kerry (1896), and Jason (1899), all issued in both 3/6 cloth and 2/- yellowback (pictorial boards) editions.

“To Let” is by far the strongest of these collections in supernatural and ghostly content. The title-story originally appeared in the 1890 Christmas Number of London Society. The dramatic picture on the yellowback cover shows the imminent murder of Gordon Forbes by two natives, as witnessed by Julia and Nellie in the ghostly vision in “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor”.

The stories in “To Let” were set mainly in India, or the surrounding ocean (like “The Former Passengers”), whereas In the Kingdom of Kerry concentrates much more on Ireland (as indicated by the title) with only an occasional foray to India (“Her Last Wishes”).

During her years in Co. Wicklow, Mrs. Croker naturally specialised much more on novels set in her native Ireland, notably Beyond the Pale (1897, first serialised in The Times) which featured a horsey Irish heroine, “Galloping Jerry”. This amusing narrative of country life in Munster, sketching the peasants and broken-down gentry without going very deeply into the Irish temperament or throwing much light on Irish troubles and politics, was very typical of her work at this period.

Terence (1899), a Kerry romance in which a rich Australian girl falls in love with the bankrupt heir of the once princely house of Desmond, was subsequently dramatised by the author herself with a fair measure of success. It ran for two years in America.

Methuen, her other regular publisher, brought out two further Croker collections of short stories, A State Secret (1901) and The Old Cantonment (1905), and several novels: Married or Single? (1895; her final three-decker), Peggy of the Bartons (1898; an English country idyll which ran into numerous editions), Angel (1901; an Anglo-Indian romance), Johanna (1903), The Happy Valley (1904), A Nine Days’ Wonder (1905), Katherine the Arrogant (1909), and Babes in the Wood (1910). Several of these, like Johanna and A Nine Days’ Wonder, were Irish stories.

Following the example of Chatto & Windus, Mrs. Croker’s novels for Methuen, alongside those of S. Baring-Gould, Marie Corelli, Robert Hichens, et al., were (according to Maureen Duffy in her centenary history of Methuen, A Thousand Capricious Chances) “often appearing simultaneously at six shillings, two shillings and sixpence, one shilling, sevenpence, and in the monthly sixpenny Novelist. There was still at this period no real rival to the novel for leisure pastime, and women in particular, who were much more restricted in their activities than men, read avidly. The only true alternatives to fiction were the theatre and the music hall.”

With huge sales and continuing royalties, it was not unusual for Mrs. Croker to earn as much as £2,000 for a single novel at the turn of the century. Robert Lee Wolff unearthed the author’s extant correspondence with her literary agent, Morris Colles, which shows that she received £1,650 for The Spanish Necklace (1907), running to 100,000 words.

In 1897 the Crokers moved from Ireland to their final home at 5 Radnor Cliff, Sandgate, near Folkestone in Kent. While his wife continued her prolific literary career, Colonel Croker enjoyed local club life and various sports. Always an enthusiastic fisherman, he visited Norway annually on angling expeditions. He died at home on 27 June 1911.

Now in her sixties, B. M. Croker carried on writing at least one novel each year without a break. She took an active role in the Radnor Club and various literary societies, and was a regular hostess to visiting writers. Ghost-hunter Elliott O’Donnell stayed with her in Sandgate when he proposed “that psychic phenomena or ghosts prove that there is an after-life for animals as well as for man”, in a debate for the Folkestone, Dover & District Debating Society on 26 January 1914

She gradually shifted away from Methuen and Chatto to Hurst & Blackett (The Youngest Miss Mowbray, 1906; The Company’s Servant, 1907), Mills & Boon (Fame, 1910), F. V. White (A Rolling Stone, 1911), Cassell (Quicksands, 1915, The Road to Mandalay, 1917); and during her last decade—seven more novels were published by Hutchinson: The Serpent’s Tooth (1912), In Old Madras (1913), Lismoyle: An Example in Ireland (1914), Given in Marriage (1916), A Rash Experiment (1917), Bridget (1918), and Blue China (1919), plus one final collection with two horrific ghost stories: Odds and Ends (1919).

In that same year (1919), at the age of seventy, Mrs. Croker was contracted by Cassell for another three novels—The Pagoda Tree (1919), The Chaperon (1920) and The House of Rest (1921)—and in the late summer of 1920, she signed another contract with Hutchinson for her next three books, which were never written.

After a short period of illness (probably related to the influenza epidemic), she was taken to a nursing home at 30 Dorset Square in London where she died suddenly on 20 October 1920.

The perceptive Times obituary writer commented (22 October) on B. M. Croker’s amazingly productive career: “Much of her success was due to her sympathy with youth, her quick sense of humour untainted by vulgarity, and the skill with which she contrived to hold her public’s interest in her stories. Perhaps, also, a part of the secret of her popularity was the frank enjoyment she derived from her work and her genuine interest in her own creations—the surest medium, in clever, honest hands, of capturing the interest of readers. While never malicious, she made full use of her knowledge of human nature, which, added to unusual powers of observation, a retentive memory, and a ready vocabulary, formed a valuable equipment for one of her profession. One of the outstanding features of her work was that, though her methods retained the flavour of the old ‘three-decker’ type of romance, her novels were always up to date, missing nothing of social changes and progress. Many successful writers of yesterday and today owe thanks to her for her kindly advice, encouragement, and help during their early struggles; jealousy was not in her nature, and her generous admiration for all of the best in other people’s efforts was one of her many fine characteristics. In her youth she was a good rider, and in her old age she remained a true sportswoman in every sense of the term. Her daughter, Mrs. Albert Whitaker, is said to have been the model from which she drew the portraits of some of her beautiful heroines.”

In her will she left effects of £8,421.10s.9d. to her daughter Mrs. Gertrude Eileen Whitaker and grandson Captain John Albert Charles Whitaker.

Eileen had married (in 1896) businessman Albert Edward Whitaker, who was knighted in 1926 and created a baronet in 1936. The family estate is at Babworth Hall, Retford, Nottinghamshire. Captain (later Major-General) John Whitaker (1897- 1957) succeeded his father to the baronetcy in 1945. His three sons are Sir James Whitaker, 3rd Bt., Rev. David Whitaker, and Ben Whitaker, Labour MP for Hampstead 1966-70 and the writer of over a dozen books including The Police and Parks for People.

Coming full circle, David Whitaker has followed his great-grandmother’s example by writing several ghost stories, published as In Face of Fear (Avon Books, 1998).

Croker’s supernatural fiction was collected for the first time in 2000 under the title “Number Ninety” and Other Ghost Stories, and published by Sarob Press as the third volume in their “Mistresses of the Macabre” series (which also included a volume by Rosa Mulholland). The book begins with the London setting of “Number Ninety”, preserving the original text from Chapman’s Magazine of Fiction (Christmas 1895), rather than the modified version retitled “An Unexpected Invitation” in A State Secret (1901) which deleted all references to “Ninety”. This may have been enforced by infuriated Londoners who happened to reside in very similar houses with the same number!

The next story, “The Former Passengers”, is set in an equally weird location off S. E. Asia on a very spooky sea voyage, en route for India with a further six macabre and touching ghost stories set in the familiar surroundings of Croker’s Indian hinterland with its remote Dâk bungalows and hill-stations (“If You See Her Face”, “The Red Bungalow”, “The Khitmatgar”, “Her Last Wishes”, “The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor”, and “To Let”). The next four tales are situated further afield in Scotland, Australia, and America (“The North Verandah”, “The First Comer”, “Trooper Thompson’s Information”, and “Who Knew the Truth?”).

After these twelve ghost stories, we move finally to France with two supernatural yarns dealing with reincarnation, possession and the transmigration of souls (“La Carcassone” and “The Door Ajar”), and to Ireland with the uncanny precognition of “Mrs. Ponsonby’s Dream”. The same theme and Irish location were also used by Mrs. Croker in “The Red Woollen Necktie”, which was reprinted in Enigmatic Tales, No. 3, December 1998.

Several more macabre though non-supernatural tales can be found in B. M. Croker’s collections, ranging from the superstition of “Thirteen” and “The Little Brass God” to the murder by decapitation in “Jack Straw’s Castle”.

While the name of this greatly talented writer has been unjustly neglected for too long, another character of the same nomenclature came briefly into prominence in the BBC TV serial The Ghost Hunter (2000-2), starring a wonderfully manic Jean Marsh in the title-role—as “Mrs. Croker”!

Selected Fiction

  • “To Let”. London: Chatto & Windus, 1893.
  • In the Kingdom of Kerry and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1896.
  • Jason and Other Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1899.
  • A State Secret. London: Methuen, 1901.
  • The Old Cantonment with Other Stories of India and Elsewhere. London: Methuen, 1905.
  • Odds and Ends. London: Hutchinson, 1919.

Further reading

  • Black, Helen C. “Mrs. Croker” in Pen, Pencil, Baton and Mask: Biographical Sketches (London: Spottiswoode, 1896).
  • Dalby, Richard. Introduction in “Number Ninety” and Other Ghost Stories. Mountain Ash, Wales: Sarob Press, 2000.

Source: The Green Book: Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature, No. 11 (Bealtaine 2018), pp. 42-51