Porpoise Books

One of Penguin’s few publishing disasters was Porpoise Books which were all released in September 1948. Planned to be the first four in a series they totally failed to sell, probably due to the high price that these children’s hardbacks retailed at which was more than double Puffin story and picture books were at the time. It may well also be that hardback children’s books of this format were difficult to display in shops so were not stocked by many retailers in the first place. Most were pulped, although a large (but quantity unknown) number were apparently sent to New Zealand where they almost all vanished, but that is where they do occasionally turn up on the secondary market, two of mine came from there. For books printed as editions of 100,000 copies per title Porpoise are extremely rare but there are only four to collect if you fancy a challenge.

The books themselves are each forty eight pages long, eight and three quarters inches tall and seven inches wide (222mm x 180mm) and significantly very fragile, almost all examples that you find are missing their spines and although they were all issued with dust wrappers these have also tended to go missing in the seventy plus years since they were published. Of the ones in my collection only The Flying Postman is in poor condition with no dust wrapper and just over 50% of its spine surviving.

J1: Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp – Traditional

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Printed by Chromoworks Ltd of Willesden, London and dated 1947 inside, although like the others it was not actually released until September 1948. No translator is given and it is described on the title page as ‘from the Arabian Nights Entertainment’. Penguin would not publish an edition of A Thousand and One Nights until August 1954, appropriately as book number 1001, although this was reissued just six months later as L64 in the classics series. However this is not the source of the text used here as Aladdin is not included in the original tales translated by N J Dawood, it being an 18th century addition to the book by French translator Antoine Galland when he produced the first European language edition in twelve volumes between 1704 and 1717.

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The illustrations are by John Harwood who was also approached to produce Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (another addition to 1001 Nights by Galland) for the second tranche of Porpoise Books.  His work with Penguin included what are now some of the rarest of their productions such as a couple of ‘Baby Puffins’ in 1944 and two Christmas themed cut out books from 1955 all of which are now pretty well impossible to find. He did also illustrate several Puffin Story books for Penguin so he continued to have a link with the company for many years.

J2: Paul, The Hero of the Fire – Edward Ardizzone

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Printed by Van Leer apparently in England rather than their main presses in Amsterdam, Paul, The Hero of the Fire was written and illustrated by Edward Ardizzone and the Porpoise edition was its first appearance in print. This was the only Porpoise book to be reprinted by Penguin although that didn’t happen until March 1969 in a considerably cheaper format in the second set of books in the Picture Puffin paperbacks launched in October 1968. The book tells the story of a young boy who hears his parents talking about having to sell their house as the stock market has collapsed and they have no money to live as they do now. He loves living there so decides to run away and earn some money to help. Ending up in a circus he does get a job but one night a fire breaks out and Paul sees some panicking children which he gathers together to lead to safety, on the way they also save many of the animals. The newspapers declare him a hero and he is presented with a reward which enables his parents to keep the house.

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I love the work of Edward Ardizzone, he was a prolific artist of books for children which is where I first came across his instantly recognisable style and I also own some of his prints from his time as a war artist in the 1940’s. He illustrated many books over the years for Penguin and was scheduled to be featured in his own volume under the Modern Painters series but sadly MP18 was never published.

J3: The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

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Printed by Balding and Mansell Ltd. of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire and with the list of current and proposed titles on the back inner page rather than on the rear of the dust wrapper. The story is the classic by The Brothers Grimm about a swans egg that accidentally ends up in a duck nest and when the egg hatches of course the cygnet is treated as ‘an ugly duckling’ and teased by his apparent siblings. Eventually he runs away and is resigned to being lonely all his life on a lake but sees some swans who tell him what he really is. That moment is captured in the painting below.

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For me this is the most beautiful of the Porpoise books, the watercolour illustrations by Will Nickless fit in perfectly with the tale. Although he illustrated several other children’s books I can’t find anything where he worked with Penguin again. It’s a pity as he is clearly a very talented artist and I would have liked to see more of his work in my Penguin collection.

J4: The Flying Postman – V H Drummond

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Printed by The Haycock Press from Camberwell, London. Like Paul, The Hero of the Fire this appears to have been specially written and illustrated by Violet Drummond for Porpoise, the only other editions I can find are significantly later. It’s a distinctly off the wall story regarding a postman who delivers his mail by autogyro until one day he crashes into the local church tower causing lots of damage to his aircraft and needing the fire brigade to get him down. He is subsequently fired and takes up making ice-cream for a living but eventually manages to get his job back after the postmaster falls off his horse and is looked after the postman and his wife. Actually his job is dependant on the postmaster having six ice creams a day delivered to him which somewhat smacks of corruption and is very odd in a children’s tale.

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The illustrations are just as offbeat as the story and like Nickless she does not appear to have any further dealings with Penguin beyond this one title.

As you can see above another odd feature of Porpoise books was that despite only four titles being published they were all printed by different printers. Also unusually for Penguin the books were not numbered or printed with a series code and it is only from later official catalogues from Penguin that we know that they were J1 to J4.

Grace Hogarth, the series editor, had high hopes for the series before publication and was well under way with negotiations for more titles including having commissioned some books so on the back of three of the dust wrappers (as mentioned above The Ugly Duckling wrapper doesn’t have a list but repeats the rear cover of the book) there was the tantalising hint of things to come.

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Toad of Toad Hall – A A Milne

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What could be better than a play written by one of the English language’s best known children’s authors based on the book by one of the others. A A Milne whilst famous for his tales of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh and all his friends in The Hundred Acre Wood was also a prolific playwright and in 1929 he adapted Kenneth Grahame’s famous 1908 tale The Wind in the Willows for the stage. This year marks ninety years since the first production and the copy I have is the first American edition also from 1929 printed by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York. The introduction is particularly interesting as Milne deals with the problems of adapting a book, particularly one as well known as The Wind in the Willows.

There are two well-known ways in which to make a play out of a book. You may insist on being faithful to the author, which means that the scene in the aeroplane on page 673 must be got in somehow, however impossible dramatically, or, with somebody else’s idea in your pocket, you may insist on being faithful to yourself, which means that by the middle of act III everybody will realise how right the original author was to have made a book of it. There may be a third way, in which case I have tried to follow it. If, as is more likely, there isn’t, then I have not made a play of The Wind in the Willows. But I have, I hope, made some sort of entertainment, with enough of Kenneth Grahame in it to appease his many admirers, and enough of me in it to justify my name on the title page.

Milne’s solution to condensing the book is to focus on the parts that feature Mr Toad. this means that a consistent central cast is established although Toad is actually only in roughly half of the original book. He also gets round the problem of just how big is everyone, after all Toad drives cars and owns a horse drawn caravan but is definitely smaller than Badger whom we know lives under a tree in the Wild Wood so must be ‘normal sized’ at least most of the time. by having the start of the first act and also the epilogue make it clear that all the action is actually the dream of a young girl called Marigold sitting with her nursemaid on the banks of the river on a warm spring morning, neither of which are in the original story.

In reading the book, it is necessary to think of Mole, for instance, sometimes as an actual mole, sometimes as such a mole in human clothes, sometimes as a mole grown to human size, sometimes as walking on two legs, sometimes on four. He is a mole, he isn’t a mole. What is he? I don’t know. And, not being a matter of fact person, I don’t mind. At least I do know, and still I don’t mind

This quote, also from the introduction, gets to the heart of the ‘problem’ with The Wind in the Willows. But the reason why I put the word problem in quotes is because it isn’t a problem and never has been to readers of the book who are just swept up in the story. But put it on a stage, with humans playing the characters, and the stage director definitely has a potential problem. This is solved by the dream concept and allows the tale to unfold seamlessly with everyone being human sized yet still being Mole, Ratty, Badger, Toad et al.

For all of Milne’s protestations above the play is actually remarkably faithful to the parts of the book being dramatised and the humour is wonderful. Especially for my mind those lines given to Alfred, the sarcastic, and feeling much put upon, horse pulling Toad’s caravan. Anyone who loves Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories will love Alfred, he was created by Milne as the horse isn’t named and is only a bit and indeed silent player in the book but here he really comes alive…

Enter a horse pulling a gaily painted wooden caravan

ALFRED Oh, there you are. I’ve been looking for you everywhere
TOAD (excitedly) Now isn’t this lucky? Just at the psycho – psycho – what’s the word?
ALFRED (hopefully) Encyclopaedia, That is, if you ask me
TOAD I didn’t ask you. Ratty you know the word–
ALFRED Introduce me to your friends, won’t you? I do get so frightfully left out of it
TOAD My friends Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole this is Alfred
ALFRED Pleased to meet you. If you are coming my way, you must let me take you. Only I do like a little conversation (To Toad) Encyclopaedia, that was the word you wanted
RAT (Sadly) So this is the latest?
TOAD (Eagerly) Absolutely the very latest. There isn’t a more beautiful one, a more compact one, a more – what’s the word?
ALFRED Heavy
TOAD A more up to date one, a more –
RAT So this is the latest craze! I understand. Boating is played out. He’s tired of it, and done with it
ALFRED Don’t blame me. I wasn’t consulted about this at all; but if I had been, I should have said boats. Stick to boats.
TOAD My dear old Ratty, you don’t understand. Boating – well – a pleasant amusement for the young. I say nothing against it. But there’s real life for you (he waves a paw at the van) – in that little cart. The open road, the dusty highway, the heath, the common, the hedgerows, the rolling downs!
ALFRED And the ups. However nobody consults me. Nobody minds what I think.

The play starts with Marigold on the phone (actually a daffodil) pretending to call Mr. Rat who she eventually gets through to and sets the basis of the play as her fantasy as regards the main characters. Suddenly we hear elfin music, the stage goes dark, Marigold and her nurse vanish and the magic of the story unfolds with Mole appearing out of his hole and meeting Ratty for the first time. We are soon afterwards introduced to Badger and then Toad and the tale continues with the arrival of Alfred so they can go on a caravanning trip. Sensibly Badger declines to be involved. Caravanning doesn’t last long however, they are forced off the road by a furiously driven car and the only thing Toad can think of after that is having one of those; “Poop Poop” is all they can get out of him for quite a while. And so ends the first act.

Act two is set entirely within the Wild Wood home of the dangerous Stoats and Weasels. Initially with Mole getting lost whilst exploring in the snow and scared of the woods inhabitants before being rescued by Ratty. Then the two of them stumble over Badger’s house and decide to take refuge from the bad weather and the ever present danger from attack when wandering at night in the wood. Inside Badgers home all is comfortable and settled as you would expect from the residence of an older gentleman content in his own company. The three friends start talking about Toad and his motoring exploits, apparently he has already owned (and crashed) seven cars, they are just discussing what they should do to save him from himself when Toad himself arrives. He has crashed car number eight… Badger decides to keep Toad at his house until this current craze has passed but after a few weeks Toad manages to trick Ratty into leaving him alone and the act closes with Toad running off singing about how clever he is.

Act three starts in a courthouse with Toad on trial for stealing a car and then calling a policeman fat-face. Sentenced to twenty years for these heinous crimes, especially the being cheeky to a policeman we then find him in a cell. He makes his escape with the help of the jailers daughter and her washerwoman aunt who they bribe to let him wear her clothes and after a series of adventures, including stealing a bargee’s horse he heads for the river.

The final act starts with Toad at Ratty’s home where he is informed that during the four weeks he was incarcerated the Stoats and Weasels have taken over Toad Hall and a daring plan is formed by Badger to take it back. The final scene of the battle and aftermath is actually the only time Toad Hall appears in the play despite being in the title. Finally the short epilogue as mentioned earlier has Marigold asleep amongst the daffodils as her nurse wakes her to go home.

As can be seen from the above précis the play follows the book pretty well, and it is sometimes difficult to spot which author is responsible for what. Indeed I will leave the last word to the summary on the dust wrapper of the first US edition and a photo of the front of the dust wrapper which is a paler version of the book cover shown at the top of the blog

we in turn, might ask ourselves after reading this play: “Is it Kenneth Grahame? Is it A. A. Milne?” We don’t know, but it doesn’t at all matter, for it is perfect

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Where’s Wumpus – Elleston Trevor

Nowadays if Elleston Trevor is remembered at all it is for his 1964 novel The Flight of the Phoenix about a plane crash in the Libyan desert where the survivors eventually manage to build a new plane out of the wreckage of the old and fly to safety. The book has been turned into a film twice, once in 1965 starring James Stewart and Richard Attenborough and remade in 2004 starring Dennis Quaid. Born Trevor Dudley-Smith he eventually changed his name to Elleston Trevor which until then was one of his eleven pen names (including his real name) for his various books such as the nineteen volumes about the spy Quiller which he wrote under the name of Adam Hall written from 1965 with the last one published in 1996 one year after his death.

However I want to go back to 1948, as I have a couple of the children’s books he wrote then which were actually originally my mothers and specifically the third (and final) book in the Wumpus series, Where’s Wumpus.

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This has been my favourite book from childhood and it has been a joy rereading it this week. As you can see from the opening page the font is lovely and the spelling wonderfully eccentric and there are also several typesetting jokes later in the book to emphasise action. Wumpus is a koala living in a wood with his various friends Ole Bill Mole, Flip, or maybe Flap, the penguin (it depends on the day, if he is Flip today then he will be Flap tomorrow and vice versa), Hare-With-the-Careless-Air and Chipmunk (who first appears in this final book). The eight colour and forty eight black and white charming illustrations are by John McCail with the colour pages on higher quality paper and inset into the book. This is probably due to paper restrictions still applying after the war meaning that the paper used for the rest of the book isn’t suitable for colour printing.

In the first part of the book Wumpus goes to visit Ole Bill Mole and after partaking of a large amount of ‘swish-roll’ is persuaded to help with the decorating that Bill had started. Unfortunately he had the only ladder so Wumpus ends up balanced precariously on the umbrella stand

But a Wumpus was now doing all he knew now to stay on top of the Brolly-stand which was trying to do a Rhumba while he did the Tango and the Bucket was going into an old-fashioned Waltz

At which point Flap (it being Tuesday) arrived and he tried to get down again…

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In a later story Wumpus discovers the joy of swinging between trees on a rope and the typesetting joins in the fun and games

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It was established early on in the book that there was a rung missing from the ladder leading down from The Wumpus Tree to the ground

So down he went, with a heigh and a ho (according to which rung of the ladder he was on) and when he came to the rung that wasn’t (because he’d forgotten to put a new one in yet) he murmured: “Careful Wump,” in a cautioning way, and managed to reach the ground without taking a run at it from half-way up the ladder (which would have been bouncy, not to mention most uncomfortablesome).

and about two thirds of the way through the book he decides to fix this particular problem even though it had started to rain leading to what appears to be a nasty accident…

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Instead it turns out that the umbrella acted like a parachute and so they all had a go at jumping off the balcony and floating to the ground, unfortunately Bill Mole, being the lightest, floated rather further than the rest and initially landed badly

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Later on it turns out that a gust of wind took him flying over the wood.

The whimsical nature of the book is just as much fun now as an adult as when I first read it aged about eight or nine, the Wumpus books are difficult to find nowadays but there is a copy of Where’s Wumpus available at the time of writing from a shop in Australia.

I do have another of Elleston Trevor’s children’s books which is also a first edition from 1948 and this is aimed at slightly older readers, probably early teens. This is illustrated with line drawings by David Williams and again printed by Gerald G. Swan. The tale is about a group of anthropomorphic animals that decide to go exploring and features an otter (called Potter), a badger (Old Stripe) and a squirrel (Skip). They try to interest other animals in the wood about coming with them but in the end it is just the three that head off down the river.

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They have all sorts of adventures on the trip including meeting up with a church mouse who joins them for a large part of the journey. As can be seen below the drawings are just as captivating as the ones in Where’s Wumpus but have a much more naturalistic style.

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The Secret Travellers is book five in the fifteen book series with the same characters which have become known as the Happy Glade (from the title of the first book) or Deep Wood (from the title of the third) series, confusingly the first two were written under the name of Trevor Dudley-Smith with the other thirteen being as Elleston Trevor hence the two different names for the series. These are all unfortunately also long out of print and difficult to find. I would love to see these available again as I’m sure they would find a readership but in the meantime I will enjoy my mother’s books and maybe I will find some of the other titles one day.

The Moomins and the Great Flood – Tove Jannson

Most people who know Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomin books have come across the eight books starting with Comet in Moominland (1946) and ending with Moominvalley in November (1970), a smaller number of people will have seen the five picture books for younger readers (1952 – 1993) only four of which have been translated into English and which will probably be featured in a blog on here sometime next year. Fewer still will have seen the long running cartoon strip which I covered in a previous blog. And then there is the subject of today’s post.

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The Moomins and the Great Flood has a very odd history it began life in 1939 at the start of WWII when twenty five year old Swedish speaking, Finnish born artist Tove Jansson, faced with a lack of inspiration for her work decided to try writing something. As she herself said in 1991

It was the winter of war, in 1939. One’s work stood still; it felt completely pointless to try to create pictures.

Perhaps it was understandable that I suddenly felt an urge to write down something that was to begin with “Once Upon a Time.”

Inspiration didn’t really strike with the written word either and the part written story was put away to be largely forgotten until she showed it to a friend in 1945 who encouraged Tove to finish it as a children’s book and do some illustrations to see if it would sell. The original title in Swedish is Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen or Small trolls and the Great Flood and although the following eight books became hugely popular all over the world from the 1950’s and have spawned a massive merchandising industry this first appearance was rather neglected. The book was out of print for a long time and did not get translated until 2005 when a limited edition copy was produced in English for the 60th anniversary of it’s first publication. This translation however was printed in Finland and was not widely available outside that country, the edition I have is printed by Sort Of Books in 2012 and is the first copy that is easy to obtain.

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So why was this book missed out when the others took off, well the first thing you notice is that it doesn’t seem to be very consistent with the others, this is clearly Tove finding her way with the characters. Here the Moomins are absolutely tiny as can be seen in the picture above where Moominmamma and Moomintroll encounter Sniff for the first time, although he is never named in this book being referred to as ‘the little creature’ throughout. The flower that Moominmamma is holding is far bigger than she is, now it has to be said that nowhere in any of the other books is a size given for Moomins but I was really surprised to see this picture as in the later illustrations Moomins and the other characters are normally interacting with things that are to the same scale as themselves so I had never thought about how tall they are before. A later picture in this book shows Moomintroll riding on a stork looking for survivors of the flood

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and this also shows him as very small. The other difference is the lack of recognisable characters, apart from Moominpappa who only makes an appearance at the end only Sniff, Moomintroll and Moominmamma and the Hattifatteners are ones we know, no Snork Maiden, Snufkin, Hemulen etc. all these wouldn’t appear until Comet in Moominland.

The back story given in this book that Moomins lived with House Trolls in peoples homes and would be behind the tall stoves that used to be so common in Scandinavia and they didn’t like central heating as there was no nice warm place to hide.

“Did the people know we were there?” asked Moomintroll

“Some did,” said his mother “They felt us mostly as a cold draught on the back of their necks sometimes – when they were alone”

As far as I can remember this is the only time an interaction with humans is mentioned in any of the books. Ultimately after numerous adventures they find Moominpappa although he has lost the house that he built as it was washed away in the floods only to find it again in a different place that became Moominvalley. The house is shaped like an old stove as a memory of the way Moomins used to live and the next book continues the story from this point.

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It’s a pity that although the book is now available in English as well as the original Swedish that there don’t appear to be other translations yet so the worldwide Moomin fans are still largely unaware of how the Moomins started, the full page pictures are beautiful and so unlike any of the books to come after this and deserve to be appreciated everywhere.

The Girl’s Own Paper

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Last week I wrote about The Boy’s Own Paper with it’s mix of tales about adventurers, swimming The Channel with Captain Webb, foreign countries and peoples, sport and other outdoors pursuits. All in all an exciting read for Victorian boys.  Well a year after it started the same publisher came up with The Girl’s Own Paper and the content was very different, reflecting the still held view that girls were effectively in training to be home-makers and certainly didn’t need, or want, tales of adventure. I don’t have as many copies of The Girl’s Own Paper but I can do the same as I did last week and look through the first ever issue from January 3rd 1880.

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The front cover looks similar to the boy’s version only the masthead is somewhat less interesting, The drawing is based on the relief sculpture “The Spirit of Love and Truth” by Joseph Edwards and as such is entirely in tune with the Victorian attitude to girls. The story on the front is a long running part work, you can follow Zara for months as the magazine comes out each week. This is presumably because the serialised stories proved so popular in the boy’s version, this contrasts with the one off tale that appeared in their first edition but this was soon changed to serials in future examples. This opening section of the tale is a full four pages long.

Instead of tales of daring do with the dashing Captain Webb girls have the life of the young Princess Victoria which is altogether more refined and ladylike and also runs to almost three full pages. It is clearly intended to be an example of moral rectitude to inspire the readers and is pure hagiography as would be only expected really. The balance of the seventh page of the paper is occupied with The Girls Own Alphabet which is frankly dire and ends:

Woman is formed from girlhoods first plan –
Xantippe or Claudia, Queen Mary or Anne
Young friends to be happy, now learn to be wise
Zeal without knowledge is a head without eyes

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After the first seven pages consisting of the story plus Princess Victoria and the poem, an article on fashion though the ages was pretty well compulsory. A girl is naturally interested in dress styles and outfits so the next double page spread is concerned with this. The hat on the lady for 1787 on the far right of the second page is described as ‘more dressy’ it makes you wonder just how over the top an outfit had to be before it was queried.

and logically following on from that are long sections on needlework and of course cookery. As I said at the beginning the target audience are home-makers in preparation, if a woman of the time did work she would be a domestic servant or nanny if she was lucky and not forced into the extremely hard work of the mills or markets, the poorest though would not be frittering their money on something as ephemeral as this magazine, the readership could be relied upon to be at least middle class so housewife was the aim for almost all. The cookery class in this edition is about roasting and apart from the fact that it assumes you would be doing so over a fire rather than in an oven a lot of the advice would not be out of place in a modern cookery book. There then follows a couple of shorter stories before we reach..

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The Useful Hints sound initially as if they are envisaging a poorer reader and the chilblains remedy sounds positively dangerous, but soon normal service is resumed with hints for reviving gilt frames and renovating silk dresses. Now this is still a make do and mend mentality there is none of the waste of throwing away perfectly serviceable items so prevalent today, girls would be expected to have the skills needed to fix things regardless of their social standing, needlework was an expected ability and it would be surprisingly advanced.

Like last week I have looked forward to edition three of the Girls Own Paper to see what they are expected to be able to make; and again what would today be seen as an astonishing amount of craft is regarded as normal.

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The bed satchel prize competition is for Crewel Work, a type of embroidery which uses wool, competitors had three months to complete the item, the winner to get two guineas and a second prize of one guinea. These are substantial prizes, the equivalent of almost £240 for the winner in today’s money. The work was to be 19¼ inches by 13 inches and use the pattern illustrated, it also had to be all the girls own work and this had to be stated in an accompanying letter written by a minister, teacher or parent. Colours are suggested in the hints section and the flowers named so that the correct shades would be used. No entrant would get their work back as

It is intended to present the well-worked satchels to the various hospitals and other charitable institutions for the use of poor patients, who will find them most handy for holding their nightdresses, pocket handkerchiefs, scent bottles, scissors etc.

The Boy’s Own Paper

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The Boys Own Paper started on Saturday January 18th 1879 and I have lots of early editions which have been bound into annual volumes and then after those a few examples of Boys Own Annual where the publisher reprinted the previous years editions in book form. The magazine was printed weekly and was full of exciting stories both fact and fiction, sports advice (later editions had articles on how to play cricket by WG Grace) along with things to do, most of which would be well beyond the target age group nowadays. The masthead reproduced above hinted at the wonders that would be found inside.

In exploring The Boys Own Paper I thought about taking my collection as a whole but decided that a more representative idea as to what a boy of 1879 would get from such a paper would be to just look at the very first issue which cost 1 penny back then which according to the Bank of England inflation calculator would be 50p nowadays so a very reasonable price as any equivalent today would be significantly more expensive.

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The front cover looks very promising but the game, described as football, is clearly what we would now call rugby. Indeed rugby football was commonly played in schools from the 1850’s following its creation at Rugby School in the 1830’s, Association Football (what we now think of as football) only had it’s rules set in 1863 and wasn’t as popular in schools even by 1879. The story concerns a boy, who picked for the team for the first time gets involved in a very close match which they only win right at the end, very much the sort of thing to catch the readers attention to the publication. The paper is 16 pages long and this tale takes up the initial 2½ pages. It was followed by a short poem and then the first part of what was to become a long running serial “Out with a Jack-Knife” and a much shorter series (just three parts) by Captain Webb, the first person to swim The English Channel.

The natural history column Out with a Jack-Knife proved especially popular and ran for a long time, in this first example it is 1½ pages long and describes finding various worms, centipedes and even glow-worms in a small overgrown garden area after first explaining that what you need is a proper British made jack-knife not one of those inferior foreign knives that include useless corkscrews, saws, things for getting stones out of horses hooves etc. British is best is a long running assumption in these magazines and this wouldn’t change right through until the magazine finally folded in 1967 after 2,511 issues, initially weekly and then monthly after WWI.

Captain Webb’s tale as to how he came to swim The Channel is full of self-deprecation as is appropriate for a Victorian gentleman. The final paragraph of the section reproduced above even says how difficult it is for him to write the piece because it is about himself but he did manage a page. Between the two sections came another page long article entitled “An Afghan Robber” which despite the unpromising title turns out to be a remarkably balanced piece of writing, especially for the time, which is actually quite complementary regarding the Koran and the Muslim faith in general.

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There then followed a series of stories, the most significant of which was “From Powder Monkey to Admiral”, this became a major storyline in future issues and by part four it was the front page tale. Subtitled “Or, the Stirring Days of the Royal Navy” this had it all for the boy looking for action and adventure in his reading and it would continue to be the front page story for most of the rest of the year and was always at least two pages in length, a significant proportion of  16 page publication.

Two shorter articles towards the end of the magazine are intriguing, I’m not sure if having read the piece about monkeys I was therefore expected to have one or more as a pet although it did lead me into that interpretation but I was more interested in the first column on Outdoor Pursuits entitled “Skating and Scuttling”. Skating I can understand, but deliberate sinking of ships as a pastime is definitely rather advanced for boys to be getting up to. It turns out that a ‘Scuttler’ is somebody who frankly is a nuisance out on the ice, dashing about without regard for other users and even worse can gather with others of their type to form conga lines spinning across the surface. The publication then has shorter and shorter articles until there is finally an essay writing competition based on a drawing with no caption.

I do want to include one item from issue three of The Boys Own Paper which gives some idea as to how advanced in skills boys were expected to be.

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This is regarded as a project that “any lads with fair mechanical aptitude’ can make what is clearly a quite advanced craft. This isn’t a simple coracle or lash up raft, what we are looking at is a serious rowing boat and you are going to learn how to do it from your weekly boys magazine. I cannot imagine any publication aimed at this age group suggesting such a thing in the present day.

Well that was issue one of The Boys Own Paper in next weeks blog I’m going to look at issue one of The Girls Own Paper which came out a year later and what a contrast it is…

When I was Very Young – A.A. Milne

Although nowadays best known for his stories about his son Christopher Robin and his toys Winnie The Pooh and all the other characters in the Hundred Acre Wood, Alan Alexander Milne would rather be known for his other books and plays. He wrote a surprisingly good crime novel (The Red House Mystery) and over 3 dozen plays along with several books of non-fiction. When I was Very Young is one of his rarest works as the only publication of it is the limited edition from The Fountain Press printed in 1930. Just 842 copies were produced and all were signed by Milne on the limitation page at the back of the book, my copy is number 38. The book comes in a plain card slipcase rather than a dust wrapper although this easily damaged and is often missing from copies for sale

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The book consists of five short biographical stories from Milne’s childhood which are written in the first person and probably true as the facts that it is possible to check are accurate, such as H.G. Wells being his science teacher at his first school, where his father was head-master. In the book his two older brothers are called David and John (in reality David Barrett Milne and Kenneth John Milne) and the age differences are correct along with the description of all three having blue eyes and golden hair. There are several illustrations by Ernest Shepard and the pages have the feel of handmade paper with rough edges. It’s short, here are only 23 pages of text along with 2 title pages, one page with the copyright information and the limitation page at the back so it definitely only takes a few minutes to read.

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All of Milne’s Christopher Robin books were also printed as deluxe editions along with several of his plays and other works some of which were also released as signed limited editions. Milne, or at least his agent in America assuming he had one, also seemed to go in for special editions only sold in the USA so there are numerous varieties of some of his titles to collect especially limited editions and pre-signed signed copies. When I was Very Young was not even the first short book by Milne in being initially issued exclusively as such a volume, in 1929 The Fountain Press released The Secret and Other Stories in an edition of 742. The Secret has however since been printed in unlimited modern editions leaving When I was Very Young alone in not being available to a wider readership.

The first page sets the scene

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After this introduction to the boys David isn’t mentioned in the first two tales, it is clear that Alan and John were close playmates though and the two boys shared a bed for many years but David, as the eldest, presumably had his own room. The first tale is a bit odd as it relates to an apparently shared dream of the two boys when they were about 5 years old for them to wake up one morning and find that everyone else in the world was dead.

As soon as we woke up we should know that it had happened; the absence of the governess from our morning toilet, the discovery of her body in the passage between her room and ours – these would be the first signs. Having explored all over the house to make sure that the thing had been done properly, and that there really were no survivors to say “Don’t” we would then proceed to such-and-such, a sweetshop, step over the body of the proprietress and have our first proper breakfast.

There then follows a drawing by Shepard with the boys eating chocolates and sweets in the shop with the corpse in the background.

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Not exactly the gentle Winnie the Pooh type tale you might expect! The second story is considerably less disturbing but none the less would be surprising to us nowadays. The two boys had collected various mineral samples and decided that they wanted to show them to somebody at the Geological Museum (then in Jermyn Street). By now it was 1890 and they were 8 and 9 years old and living in St Johns Wood, which is about 3½ miles (5½ km) from the museum. However their father seemed quite happy to let them go on their own as long as they ‘asked a policeman to help them cross Piccadilly Circus’, one of the most busy and therefore dangerous junctions in the city. They manage the trip, meet the curator who spends time with them looking at their small collection and also shows them round the museum and on their way back buy some matches to strike in their bedroom at night after the lights had gone out.

Two very short reminiscences follow, both featuring all three boys, in the first, inspired by a book called The Golden Key they put on an impromptu (and unscripted) play which turns out to be very short and in the second again after being inspired by a book they decide to be sailors and having lined up in front of their father David explains this to him. After consideration their father explains that “There will be examinations to pass”, at this David promptly gives up on the idea.

The final story moves us forward in time again to 1896 when ‘John’ and Alan were both at Westminster Public School and Alan was 14. Although they were boarding students they were allowed out at weekends providing they had somewhere to stay and this one weekend they were staying at the home of some elderly friends of their father. They had found a firework left over from the bonfire night celebrations and decided to extract the gunpowder from it. After a while a fairly disappointing quantity of powder was tipped out…

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I don’t know why Milne always refers to his brother as John rather than Kenneth or Ken in this short volume, particularly as he always calls him Ken in his book It’s Too Late Now: The Autobiography of a Writer published in 1939 and dedicated as follows; 1880-1929 To the memory of KENNETH JOHN MILNE who bore the worst of me and made the best of me.

Oddly David is called Barry in the autobiography so Alan does like to confuse his readers.

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The signed limitation page at the back of the book

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