Ernest Bramah

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Ernest Bramah
portrait of Ernest Bramah
Ernest Bramah Smith

(1868-03-20)20 March 1868
Died27 June 1942(1942-06-27) (aged 74)

Ernest Bramah (20 March 1868[1] – 27 June 1942), whose name was recorded after his birth as Ernest Brammah Smith, was an English author.[2] He published 21 books and numerous short stories and features. His humorous works were ranked with Jerome K. Jerome and W. W. Jacobs, his detective stories with Conan Doyle, his politico-science fiction with H. G. Wells, and his supernatural stories with Algernon Blackwood. George Orwell acknowledged that Bramah's book What Might Have Been influenced his Nineteen Eighty-Four. Bramah created the characters Kai Lung and Max Carrados.[3]

Bramah was a very private man who did not make public any details of his personal life. He died at the age of 74 in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. After Bramah died, his widow presented to the Hammersmith borough libraries a collection of all his published books for reference use only. Bramah had lived in Hammersmith for some 30 years, not far from Ravenscourt Park.[4]

Early career[edit]

Ernest Bramah Smith (on his birth certificate the spelling of his middle name is given phonetically, as 'Brammah') dropped out of Manchester Grammar School at sixteen, having been close to the bottom in each subject. He went into farming, first as a farm pupil and then in his own right. He was supported by his father, who had risen in a short time from a factory hand to a wealthy man. The farming enterprise cost his father £100,000 in today's money, but it was while farming that Bramah began to contribute local vignettes to the Birmingham News. Later he wrote a tongue-in-cheek book about his adventures in farming.[5] It found few buyers, and was remaindered and pulped, though his father agreed to support him while he made his way in Grub Street as a writer. He eventually obtained a position as secretary to Jerome K. Jerome and rose to become editor of one of Jerome's magazines. After leaving Jerome he edited other journals for a publishing firm that later went bankrupt.

Writing career[edit]

Bramah attained commercial and critical success with his creation of Kai Lung, an itinerant storyteller. He first appears in The Wallet of Kai Lung which was rejected by eight publishers before Grant Richards published it in 1900. It was still in print a hundred years later. The Kai Lung stories are humorous tales set in China, often with fantasy elements such as dragons and gods.[6]

With Kai Lung, Bramah invented a form of Mandarin English illustrated by the following passages:

  • "Kai Lung rose guardedly to his feet, with many gestures of polite assurance and having bowed several times to indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension to conceal the direction of her flight".[7]
  • "In particular, there is among this august crowd of Mandarins one Wang Yu, who has departed on three previous occasions without bestowing the reward of a single cash. If the feeble and covetous Wang Yu will place in his very ordinary bowl the price of one of his exceedingly ill-made pipes, this unworthy person will proceed."[8]
  • "After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants."[9]

The Kai Lung stories are studded with proverbs and aphorisms, such as the following:

  • "He who lacks a single tael sees many bargains"[10]
  • "It is a mark of insincerity of purpose to spend one’s time in looking for the sacred Emperor in low-class teashops"[11]
  • "It has been said there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice on a dark night"[12]

Bramah also wrote political science fiction. What Might Have Been, published in 1907 and republished as The Secret of the League in 1909, is an anti-socialist dystopia reflecting Bramah's conservative political views.[13] It was acknowledged by George Orwell as a source for Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell credited it with giving a considerably accurate prediction of the rise of Fascism.[14]

At a time when the English Channel had yet to be crossed by an aeroplane, Bramah foresaw aerial express trains traveling at 10,000 feet, a nationwide wireless-telegraphy network, a prototype fax machine and a cypher typewriter similar to the German Enigma machine.[citation needed]

In 1914, Bramah created Max Carrados, a blind detective. Given the outlandish idea that a blind man could be a detective, in the introduction to the second Carrados book The Eyes of Max Carrados, Bramah compared his hero's achievements to those of real-life blind people such as Nicholas Saunderson, Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, Blind Jack of Knaresborough the road builder, John Fielding the Bow Street Magistrate (of whom it was said he could identify 3,000 thieves by their voices), and Helen Keller.

In 1929, Bramah wrote the book "English Regal Copper Coins" which was published by Methuen. The book concentrates on British copper coinage from 1671 during the reign of Charles II until the end of pure copper coin production during Victoria's reign in 1860. The book is still used widely by numismatic auction houses throughout the world with Bramah reference numbers. The section on coin rarity as a percentage of production for each year is still considered useful to date.[15]

"Interesting times" and other quotations[edit]

Bramah has been credited with the invention of the saying, widely quoted as an ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times", along with "May you come to the attention of those in authority" and "May you find what you are looking for".[16] However, these do not appear in the Kai Lung stories.

Archives at Harry Ransom Center[edit]

Bramah's manuscripts,correspondence and additional materials including his work for Jerome K. Jerome and as staff member at Today, The Idler (1892–1911) and the Grosvenor Press are held at the University of Texas Harry Ransom Center. A letter of 27 April 1923 from Bramah to Grant Richards explains he had never been to China.[17]

Select bibliography[edit]

Kai Lung[edit]


Max Carrados books and short stories[edit]


  • Max Carrados (1914)
  • The Eyes of Max Carrados (1923)
  • Max Carrados Mysteries (1927)
  • The Bravo of London (1934)
  • Best Max Carrados Detective Stories (1972). A selection of stories included in the collections published in Bramah's lifetime
  • The Eyes of Max Carrados (2013) contains Max Carrados, The Eyes of Max Carrados, Max Carrados Mysteries and the short story A Bunch of Violets included in The Specimen Case

Short stories[edit]

  • "The Master Coiner Unmasked". News of the World, 17 August 1913. Collected in Max Carrados as "The Coin of Dionysius"
  • "The Mystery of the Signals". News of the World, 24 and 31 August 1913. Collected in Max Carrados as "The Knights Cross Signal Problem"
  • "The Tragedy at Brookbend Cottage". News of the World, 7 and 14 September 1913. Collected in Max Carrados
  • "The Clever Mrs Straithwaite". News of the World, 21 and 28 September 1913. Collected in Max Carrados
  • "The Great Safe Deposit Coup". News of the World, 5 and 12 October 1913. Collected in Max Carrados as "The Last Exploit of Harry the Actor"
  • "The Tilling Shaw Mystery". News of the World, 19 and 26 October 1913. Collected in Max Carrados
  • "The Secret of Dunstan's Tower". News of the World, 2 and 9 November 1913. Collected in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Comedy at Fountain Cottage". News of the World, 16 and 23 November 1913. Collected in Max Carrados
  • "The Kingsmouth German Spy Case". News of the World, 30 November and 7 December 1913. Collected in The Eyes of Max Carrados'
  • The Missing Actress Sensation. News of the World, 14 December 1913. Collected in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Virginiola Fraud". News of the World, 21 December 1913. Collected in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Game Played in the Dark". News of the World, 28 December 1913. Collected in Max Carrados
  • "The Bunch of Violets". Strand Magazine, July 1924. Collected in The Specimen Case
  • "The Disappearance of Marie Severe". First published in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Mystery of the Poisoned Dish of Mushrooms". First published in The Eyes of Max Carrados (Also published as "Who Killed Charlie Winpole?")
  • "The Ghost at Massingham Mansions". First published in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Ingenious Mr Spinola". First published in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Eastern Mystery". First published in The Eyes of Max Carrados
  • "The Secret of Headlam Heights". The New Magazine, December 1925. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries[18]
  • "The Mystery of the Vanished Petition Crown". The New Magazine, January 1926. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Crime at the House in Culver Street". The New Magazine, February 1926. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Curious Circumstances of the Two Left Shoes". The New Magazine, May 1926. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Strange Case of Cyril Bycourt". The New Magazine, June 1926. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Missing Witness Sensation". Pearson's Magazine, July 1926. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Holloway Flat Tragedy". The Story-Teller, March 1927. Collected in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "The Ingenious Mind of Mr Rigby Lacksome". First published in Max Carrados Mysteries
  • "Meet Max Carrados". BBC, 3 May 1935. A profile and commentary by Bramah on the character's origins.

Stage plays[edit]

  • Blind Man's Bluff. (1918). Collected in Bodies from the Library (Ed. Tony Medawar)

Stage Plays Adapted by others[edit]

  • In the Dark (1917) - Gilbert Heron

Other fiction[edit]


  • The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905)
  • The Secret of the League (1907)
  • The Specimen Case (1924), which includes a Kai Lung story and a Max Carrados story,[19] The Bunch of Violets
  • Short Stories of To-day and Yesterday (1929). Includes eleven stories by Bramah
  • A Little Flutter (1930)

Short stories[edit]

Stage plays adapted by others[edit]

  • Kai Lung's Golden Hours (1931) - Allan D Mainds
  • The Willow Pattern (1937) - Colonel Newton
  • The Probation of Sen Heng (1937) - Adaptor unknown



  • English Farming and Why I Turned It Up (1894)
  • A Guide to the Varieties and Rarity of English Regal Copper Coins, Charles II-Victoria, 1671–1860 (1929)
  • A Handbook for Writers and Artists: a practical guide for contributors to the press and to literary and artistic publications; by a London editor [i.e. E. B. Smith]. London: Charles William Deacon & Co., 1898


  1. ^ Entry of Birth in 2nd Quarter 1868 Register, Hulme, Chorlton, Lancashire, volume 8C, p. 739.
  2. ^ The most recent biographical source is: Aubrey Wilson, The Search for Ernest Bramah (Creighton and Read 2007).
  3. ^ White, William (1964)."Ernest Bramah" and "Checklist." The Book Collector 13 no 1(spring):54-63.
  4. ^ Letter from the borough librarian in The Times; 1 June 1978
  5. ^ White, William. "Country Correspondent to Editor and Novelist: Ernest Bramah (1868-1942)." Journalism Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1967)
  6. ^ David Langford, "Bramah, Ernest" in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, edited by John Clute and John Grant, 1997, Orbit (pp. 135-36).
  7. ^ Bramah, Ernest (1922). Kai Lung's Golden Hours. London: Grant Richards Ltd., p. 9.
  8. ^ Bramah, Ernest (1900). The Wallet of Kai Lung. London: Grant Richards, p. 124.
  9. ^ Bramah (1922), p. 174.
  10. ^ Bramah (1922), p. 57.
  11. ^ Bramah (1900), p. 6.
  12. ^ Bramah (1922), p. 264.
  13. ^ John Clute, "Bramah, Ernest", in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by Clute and Peter Nicholls, Orbit, 1993 (pp. 15–56).
  14. ^ George Orwell, "Predictions of Fascism", originally published in the Tribune on 12 July 1940, appearing in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 2, pp. 47–48).
  15. ^ Publications by Ernest Bramah Retrieved 19 September 2021.
  16. ^ "Ernest Bramah News". Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  17. ^ White, William. "Ernest Bramah on China: An Important Letter." PMLA : Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 87, no. 3 (1972): 511–13.
  18. ^ "Max Carrados Mysteries". Project Gutenberg Australia. Retrieved 16 January 2021.
  19. ^ Hubin, Allen J. Crime Fiction: 1749–1980: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York and London: Garland Publishing (1984); ISBN 0-8240-9219-8

External links[edit]