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£500 house was won by just writing a short story

About 10 years ago, I added the cabinet card reproduced here to my collection, since I found it a curious and inexpensive item, writes Jan Bondeson.

Tit-Bits Villa, a rather humdrum suburban semi-detached house, had been won in a competition by Private William Robert Mellish, of the Eight Hussars.

He could be presumed to be identical to the uniformed person standing in front of the house. At the time, I did not know the full story of Tit-Bits Villa, but now I have solved its mystery.

George Newnes was a rabble-rousing newspaper man, born in 1851 as the son of a clergyman. In 1881, he founded Tit-Bits magazine, intended for literate members of the lower and middle classes.

He promoted it with various cunning and unconventional schemes, like burying £500 in gold out in the countryside and providing cryptic clues to its location in the magazine.

After a frenzied effort, the Tit-Bits Hidden Treasure was retrieved, in Offley Road near Hitchin.

For the Tit-Bits Christmas competition of 1883, Mr Newnes had thought of a novel scheme. For the best Christmas story, in less than 3, 000 words, one lucky reader of Tit-Bits would win a seven-roomed house worth £500.

The winner was to decide the location of the house, but it had to be detached or semi-detached, and to be referred to as Tit-Bits Villa in perpetuity.

All readers could take part, irrespective of age, sex, nationality or colour.

The proto-socialist Newnes also made sure that literary talent was taken out of the equation, stipulating that the readers should feel free to submit a story without a Christmas theme, or even a previously published story written by someone else.

As we know, the winner of Tit-Bits Villa was the 26-year-old Private William Robert Mellish, who had submitted the story Miss Wilmer’s Adventure, which he had found in a book by the American writer Charles Heber Clark, published five years earlier.

Joseph Conrad, who had submitted a story of his own, took his loss with equanimity, but Conan Doyle, who had also taken part, challenged Newnes to have his own entry and the winning one put before an impartial judge.

Pleased that the competition had been won by a humble private soldier, the rabble-rousing editor snubbed him

Private Mellish chose South London as the location of his new house, namely 15 Southville Park Villas, Dulwich.
There were grand ceremonies when he was handed the keys and showed the house to some fellow soldiers.

No doubt, Mr Newnes had hoped that Private Mellish would live in Tit-Bits Villa himself, but the capitalist soldier preferred to rent it out, thus getting a steady and reliable income.

He left the army in May 1884, just before the regiment was posted to Afghanistan, but no person seems to have sent three white feathers to Tit-Bits Villa.

Private Mellish became a baker and lived on until 1924, leaving not less than £10 000 in his will.

George Newnes founded Strand Magazine and became a Baronet and a Liberal MP, but he died from diabetes in 1910.

Tit-Bits Villa still stands, at what is now 101 East Dulwich Grove, although the fanlight over the door has been replaced, depriving it of its unique name.

On George Newnes, see the paper by K. Jackson in Victorian Periodicals Review 30(3) 1997; on Tit-Bits Villa, see the article by S. O’Connor in Dulwich Society Journal, Winter 2016.

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