Penguin Books: the Allan Lane Years

Steve Hare

Director, Penguin Collectors Society

19 October 2004

The growth of Penguin Books Ltd from a tiny family venture into one of the world’s most powerful publishing houses did not come about overnight — although its growth was spectacular—and was not the result, in the early days at least, of any grand design. Penguin’s growth depended to a certain extent on accident and coincidence — but much more on the magnetic and charismatic personality of their founder, Allen, later Sir Allen Lane. It was specifically his willingness to take risks and to experiment, coupled with his boundless exuberance and dynamism — and a genuine interest in every and any subject — that drew so many of the best and brightest authors and freelance editors to Penguin: editors to whom he gave virtually a free hand. In no time at all Penguin built up a priceless goodwill, quite essential to the shoestring budget on which they originally operated. Authors received a royalty of one farthing per copy — £1 per thousand books: £25440 for a typical edition — almost invariably shared with their hardback publisher. But these authors wrote for and appeared under the Penguin imprint not for that initial meagre financial reward, but for the unrivalled access to a large new reading public, and, in a very short time, for the prestige that attached to the imprint. Penguins — and especially Pelicans — had authority and value, and a huge, avid readership that was truly international from the very start. It is that sense of goodwill that attaches to readers just as much as authors, and Penguin’s universal coverage that has made this imprint so much a part of our lives over the past sixty years, and it is surely the impetus that has propelled so many people into the innocent pastime, which almost inevitably becomes an obsession, of collecting early Penguins. On a personal level, they are an intimate part of our lives from childhood on: on a collective level they reflect and virtually define our changing social, cultural and literary values.

In slightly different circumstances, James Joyce’s Ulysses might just have become the first publication in hard covers of Penguin Books. Allen Lane had succeeded to the Chairmanship of the Bodley Head, whose situation was already being described as ‘desperate’ in 1932. Amidst growing disagreement, an accommodation had been reached with the co-directors whereby the Lanes, Allen and his two brothers Richard and John, would raise their own money to fund personal ventures.

It was in this way that Penguin Books were to be launched in July 1935, the first eighty books carrying the Bodley Head imprint on the cover along with that of Penguin. It was not until early in 1936 that Allen Lane put the Bodley Head into voluntary liquidation, severed his connections with the firm and formed Penguin Books Ltd with his brothers and £100 capital.

Lane had made one of his regular trips to the States in the early 1930s and found himself in the fight place at the fight time to bid for the British rights to Ulysses. Ultimately, he was the only British publisher to make an offer for it. Returning home with his prize he found the Bodley Head co-directors would only sanction its publication on the basis of the loose agreement, which placed all the costs and the real risk of prosecution on the Lanes. Even so, by the time it was published, under the imprint of the Bodley Head, the Lanes were no longer involved in the company. Ulysses was to become one of the foundations on which the fortunes of the Bodley Head slowly revived.

Between 1936 and the time of the Penguin edition, the Bodley Head had sold just over a 250,000 copies of the book — averaging at 10,000 copies a year, until, in 1961, the film of Ulysses, and the Countess of Dartmouth’s denunciation of both the book and the film (which she had apparently neither read nor seen) raised the sales for that year, according to the Bookseller, to almost 40,000 copies. From then on sales declined to little over 2,000 a year. Such figures might easily be interpreted as denoting a book that has had its day.

By the late 1960s Sir Allen Lane was in poor health, and no longer played an intimate role in the daily affairs and editorial decisions of Penguin. But he wanted Ulysses for Penguin. After protracted negotiations with Max Reinhardt he was able to secure it, but only by paying a massive £75,000 advance: the highest price ever paid in Britain for paperback rights. It was published on 23 April 1969, fifty years to the day after Allen Lane’s almost accidental entry into publishing.

It was as a direct result of hostilities with Germany that had led the young Allen Lane Williams into publishing. John Lane, the celebrated publisher of the Bodley Head was forced to abandon the splendours of Lancaster Gate Terrace when Zeppelin raids started on London. He moved with his wife to the West Country, and once there decided to look up a distant branch of his family. Allen Williams senior lived in Bristol with his wife and four children, of whom Allen, a student at Bristol Grammar School, was the oldest. John Lane had no children and no obvious successor for the Bodley Head. But clearly there was some spark in the young Allen Williams that caught his fancy. It was soon agreed that Allen would join the firm — at the bottom — on the condition that the entire family changed its surname from Williams to Lane. Allen thus became Allen Lane Williams Lane, which soon became Allen Lane, and usually, thereafter just AL, and he joined the firm on St George’s Day, 1919. Bristol has honoured one of its most famous citizens in several ways — he has an honorary MA, and a blue plaque at his childhood home. At one time there was talk of naming a street after him: might it have been Allen Lane Williams Lane Lane?

There is a certain irony in the fact that Lane’s and Penguin’s early fortunes are largely tied up with war. Ironic too because it was Lane’s reluctance to become too heavily involved in the rush to publish war yarns in the early 1950s that ultimately provided rival publishers like Corgi, and especially Pan with their first real taste of success. Pan produced a stream of best sellers: The Darn Busters, The Colditz Story, The Naked Island, Cockleshell Heroes, which when added to the steady flow of Ian Fleming Bond books formed a firm foundation from which they could address Penguin’s supremacy.

Penguin did not entirely neglect the genre. Their first tentative step in this direction was a superbly romantic gesture that says an awful lot about the way the company operated at the time. It was published on 30 July 1954. Anniversaries and numbers were very important to Penguin: the first ten Penguins had published on that date in 1935. A short booklet, now quite rare, Ten Years of Penguins, based on articles by Edmond Segrave in the Bookseller was published to celebrate that first decade. This booklet was later updated, and reprinted in 1951 as Penguins: A Retrospect, a publication which clearly demonstrates a little of what had been going on behind the scenes in the meantime. The 1945 booklet bears all the hallmarks of wartime shortage — principally a lack of staff and good raw materials.

Penguin design had initially been a key factor in the company’s success — the books were unmistakable, bold and modern, and the penguin device itself was both instantly recognisable and very adaptable. As paper rationing began to bite during the war and books got thinner, and dust wrappers had to be abandoned, so the penguin device had to adjust — by getting smaller, and appearing in various uncomfortable poses. After the war, Lane was determined to set new standards of design. He sought and secured ‘the best typographer in the world’, Jan Tschichold, then working in Switzerland. In two years Tschichold transformed every aspect of Penguin design: the device, covers, tide pages and the text itself. This purity of design was further enhanced and entrenched by Tschichold’s successor Hans Schmoller, who stayed with the company for the rest of his career, retiring as a board member in 1976. Penguins: A Retrospect demonstrates in every page the influence of these two men.

Penguin’s first designer had been a young man who had started like Lane, as an office junior at the Bodley Head. Once they had settled on the name Penguin — just one of several acknowledgements of the influence of Albatross Books, Edward Young was dispatched to London Zoo to draw penguins, which soon appeared dancing across the pages of the trade press, and making their initial, welcoming gesture on the spine and front cover of the first issues. Young left Penguin early in 1940 and, after basic training, joined the submarine service. It was his memoir, One of Our Submarines that was published in July 1954 as the 1,000th Penguin in the main series, the penguin and number both framed in celebratory laurel wreaths. Without doubt, it is the sight of this bedecked number 1,000 on the shelves of secondhand bookshops that has introduced the first thoughts of acquiring early Penguins into the minds of countless collectors, the great majority of whom still concentrate on the first thousand of the main series.

Significant numbers were always commandeered by Penguin editors for particularly prestigious titles and authors — Shaw taking most of the early honours in the field, with numbers 200, 300, 500, and, the grandest gesture of all, the first Penguin ‘million’ in 1946 in celebration of Shaw’s ninetieth birthday, when ten titles were simultaneously issued in editions of 100,000 — the entire million selling out in just six weeks. Few collectors of early Penguins take long to acquire these. But this was was the start for Penguin numerolgy: 666 in the main series was reserved for Defy the Foul Fiend; 1001 was, of course, The Thousand and One Nights; 1212 became Sir Harold Scott’s book on Scotland Yard. Their obvious disappointment at having to assign the number 972 to Orwell’s classic was partially compensated when the telephone exchanges were updated, and Penguin’s Harmondsworth telephone number became SKYport 1984.

It was the threat of the next war, and its inevitable outbreak that would set the seal on Penguin’s success. Within little more than a year of starting, new series were being planned to supplement the main run of fiction and associated tides. Pelican Books were launched in May 1937 — wit Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, in two volumes, "with additional chapters specially written for this edition" making it effectively the first original Penguin publication. The red and white Penguin Specials then started in November 1937, once again launching with an established book, with new material bringing it up to date: Edgar Mowrer’s Germany Puts the Clock Back (51).

The series developed at a frantic pace, issuing books that were mostly commissioned, and published in a timeframe that was much closer to journalism than publishing. Most of all, the Specials were committed —taking a strong anti-Fascist line that proved to be perfectly in tune with public opinion: sales of 100,000 were common.

During the war, the theme of the Specials adapted to reflect the changing needs of their audience, and titles reflect the course of the war and the hardships and particular problems faced both at home and abroad. Particularly difficult to obtain now is The Wartime ‘Good Housekeeping’ Cookery Book, with its cooking hints for the use of bacon rinds, apple peelings, left over vegetables and milldess sauces and tempting recipes for Liver Soup, Mystery Pie, Dig For Victory Dish, and Wartime Christmas Pudding (1oz. orange peel, if available...). Then there was Signalling and Map Reading for the Home Guard, Nazis in Norway, Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps, Guerrilla Warfare. Venereal Disease in Britain, How the Jap Army Fights, Health of the Future, and, the biggest wartime sellers of all, R.A. Saville-Sneath’s two volumes on Aircraft Recognition. Some of these titles are still common enough, though the inferior quality paper, and the practical use to which these books were undoubtedly put, has left most copies in a delicate or dishevelled state today. Fine copies are to be treasured.

These wartime issues can be identified readily not only by their condition — and the much smaller penguin device squeezed onto the thinner spine — but by the advertisements many of them carried, which add to the wartime flavour: ‘I am rather rare, so only ask your share’, said Peak Frean’s, Britain crispest biscuits; and Mars Bars, who urged readers to ‘cut them into slices’.

Ian Ballantine, who was taken on by Lane to set up the American operation in 1939, depended entirely on imports from Harmondsworth for the first few years of the war. It made life particularly difficult for him — on the one hand the loss of a single merchant ship might also mean the loss of 50,000 books destined to supplement his stock; on the other, Americans, not yet at war, naturally preferred the crisp, laminated, home-produced Pocket Books to Ballantine’s austere and inferior imported product. His answer was to publish in America. Starting from the excellent example of Saville-Sneath’s book, Ian and his first editor Walter Pitkin, along with their respective wives, compiled their first book What’s That Plane? around a dining room table. It was to sell more than 350,000 copies in the course of the war.

It also paved the way for a collaboration similar to that organised in Britain between the local Penguin organisation and the military. In the States this led to a series of Fighting Forces Penguin Specials, published in partnership with The Infantry Journal: a series of books that turn up rarely in Britain, but still turn up in Europe, particularly Belgium and the Netherlands — I Knew your Soldier, This is the Navy, The Battle is the Pay-Off They Were Expendable, A Handbook for Arâny Wives and Mothers — smaller than British Penguins, and considerably better than cash at Penguin Collectors’ Society gatherings.

In Britain Lane’s chief editorial adviser W.E. Williams also ran the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which considerably smoothed the path towards setting up the Forces Book Club under the Penguin imprint. Potentially, the scheme could have secured Penguin’s financial stability for years to come — but as ever in these days, the financial aspect was not Allen Lane’s first thought. Had it been, he could have achieved this when paper rationing was first introduced. All publishers had their paper allocation based on the previous year’s sales — the year in which the phenomenal sales of Penguin Specials had boosted already excellent sales of the main series titles, Pelicans, the newly established Penguin Shakespeare, Penguin Guides and Penguin Parade. After years of recession publishers were suddenly faced with a public so eager to read that they could sell almost anything. Lane could, at that point, have decided to transfer his interests from sixpenny books to 3/6, 5/- — or 7/6 publishing. The same paper allocation would have brought a much enhanced return. Instead, he stuck firmly to the principles first established by Penguin — as much missionary as mercenary — and maintained the low price policy.

The Forces Book Club offered the chance of an enhanced paper allocation, a guaranteed audience, much improved sales and more than doubled royalties for authors (print runs of 75,000 were mooted for FBC titles), as well as an opportunity to help the war effort. With his two brothers now serving in the Navy, it was as much an idealistic gesture as a commercial venture. The Club lasted one year, a victim of both poor publicity and high ideals. What the troops in the field and at remote anti-aircraft batteries wanted was good light reading — crime and westerns — not Beyond the Microscope, Social Life in the Insect World, and Mathematician’s Delight. The scheme was abandoned, to be replaced later by Penguin Services Editions, and further special publications — Egyptian Editions, for troops in North Africa, and, perhaps the rarest Penguins of all, The Prisoner of War Book Service, identifiable only by the announcement inside the front cover. Few of these survive, and of these the most ‘common’ tend to be those reprinted from the ‘travel and adventure’ books in the main series, among them a number of books concerned with escape from German PoW camps during WWI. It can only be assumed that these books never actually made it to camps. They were publicised and distributed abroad by the Red Cross, who would surely not have risked compromising the fragile lines of contact they had established.

The Escaping Club, by A.J. Evans, one of those PoW editions did actually make it to camps. As the author pointed out to Penguin, it was translated into German and Italian and was used in the training of camp guards. Similarly, the RAF made copies available to air crews. A good reason for the great rarity of these and many wartime editions was revealed by former PoW Elliott Viney, in Penguin’s 25th anniversary publication, Penguins Progress, 1935-1960. Following the banning of Penguin Books in German camps after the appearance of an advertisement for the Penguin Pen, featuring a cartoon of a British soldier applying a bayonet to the behind of someone looking not unlike Hitler: ‘All Penguins were banned from that day and were held up by the Censors, but they continued to be sent from England and eventually filled two rooms in the German Censor’s office. When the invasion forces were approaching the Rhine two years later the ban was suddenly lifted and over 25,000 Penguins were released on one memorable day and probably served as fuel to make almost as many cups of tea.’

It was during the darkest days of the war, too that Penguin expanded into new realms, of considerable interest to the collector: the King Penguin series is a remarkable achievement at the price for their quality and breadth of scope even under normal circumstances. Shortly after, Noel Carrington’s wish to emulate the Russians’ cheap, brightly coloured children’s books was given full rein by Allen Lane. Like so many other Penguin series, the Puffin Picture Books offer the perfect opportunity for the collector: desirable and highly attractive books, very much of their time; a reasonable number with clearly defined limits (though the series is numbered 1-120, only 119 were actually published); a certain number of minor mysteries, with undefined editions, price and cover variations; and some real rarities. Several of the series were cut-out books —Make Your Own Farm, Paper Birds, The Puffin Noah’s Ark, and John Harwood’s exquisite The Yuletide Cottage and A Christmas Manger. All of these, and the larger companion series Puffin Cut-Out Books are extremely rare, and when they turn up at all, are fetching prices that can only rise and rise. Similarly the delightful Baby Puffins — exactly half the size of Puffin Picture Books — and designed for younger children are virtually unobtainable now, and consequently command staggering prices.

The first three Puffin Picture Books charted the progress of the war — on land, sea and in the air, before turning their attention to rural matters: introducing newly evacuated city children to life on the farm, in ponds and hedgerows. Particularly desirable are the three Paxton Chadwick contributions to the series, Pond Life, Wild Animals in Britain, and, both Carrington and Lane’s particular favourite, Wild Flowers;C. F. Tunnicliffe’s Birds of the Estuary and Edward Bawden’s The Arabs; along with notable contributions by Bernard Venables, Richard Chopping, Enid Marx, Lionel Edwards, Margaret and Alexander Potter, and the truly remarkable James Gardner.

Paxton Chadwick also illustrated three King Penguins, British Butterflies, British Reptiles and Amphibians, and, as a staunch communist, was an offbeat choice to illustrate The Crown Jewels. He was also commissioned to write and illustrate a fourth Puffin Picture Book, Life Histories, charting the changes and strange journeys undertaken by a cross-section of the animal kingdom: frogs, jellyfish, mayflies, crabs and salmon. Assigned the number PP1 16, it was never published. He died suddenly in 1960 after delivering the text and completing many of the illustrations, around the time that Noel Carrington retired, heralding the inevitable decline and demise of the series. Chadwick’s text survived in the Penguin archive at Bristol, along with a detailed file outlining the book’s own life history, as subsequent efforts were made by Puffins’ new editor Kaye Webb to publish it. The plates were completed by Sheila Dorrell (now Fisher), and have survived in excellent condition.

As their own contribution to Penguin’s 60th anniversary, and to celebrate their coming of age, the Penguin’s Collectors’ Society published a limited edition of this book, in its Puffin livery, exactly as it would have originally appeared — with the notable, though unavoidable exceptions of the size of its edition, and price.

Shortly after the establishment of Carrington’s series, Eleanor Graham took on the task of creating a juvenile version of the main Penguin series. Puffin Story Books included children’s fiction, travel and adventure yams, crime and mystery stories, and soon added a number of children’s classics. Initially published with the same Penguin tripartite cover, this soon gave way to fully illustrated, and often extremely attractive illustrated covers in full colour. Puffins, of course, are still being produced today, so the series has no convenient cut-off point for collectors, other than simply deciding arbitrarily on, perhaps, the first 100, 200 or 250. Any of these numbers so chosen deprives the collector of literary gems or consummate covers: The Hobbit, The Borrowers sequence, most of the Arthur Ransome stories, and C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, to name but a few.

Finally the war years saw the introduction and flowering of two series that are tailor-made for collector’s: the forty volumes of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing, and Sir Kenneth Clark’s tour de force, the Penguin Modern Painters.

With the return to peace in 1945, Lane’s ambitions for Penguin were by no means satisfied, and despite the austerity of the immediate postwar years, were hardly curtailed. Almost immediately he launched several of the most influential and far-reaching projects yet undertaken. E.V. Rieu’s immensely successful Penguin Classics — on the verge of celebrating their own golden anniversary — were followed by two series that perfectly epitomise the ideal of Penguin presenting a unique forum for an idea whose time has come. In the same way as Penguin had been the ideal springboard for John Lehmann, Noel Carrington. Eleanor Graham, and the Pelican editors W. E. Williams, Krishna Menon and Lance Beales, so now it provided an opportunity for Nikolaus Pevsner, the King Penguin editor, to realise two modest ambitions: to document every notable building in the British Isles, and to compile a series on every important aspect of art history.

The Buildings of England and the Pelican History of Art were never undertaken for motives of profit, but as substantial steps towards establishing Penguin as a comprehensive and universal imprint, touching every aspect of life, and providing an authoritative statement on every worthwhile human activity. The immediate postwar years saw several such steps, considerably more tentative than Pevsner’s masterworks: the Penguin Music Scores, Penguin Prints, Penguin Film Review, Penguin Music Magazine, New Biology and Science News, along with the most attractive Planning, Design and Art and The Things We See series, followed in the 1950s by Pelican subseries on English Literature, British and World History, Philosophy, Psychology and Archaeology. To these must be added the Penguin Reference Library, Penguin Handbooks, the Penguin Poets, Penguin Plays — and, under the strong editorial influence of Tony Godwin in the 1960s, the international New Writing volumes, the revival of the Penguin Specials, Penguin Modern Poets, Penguin European Poets, the Penguin English Library, Peregrine Books, the Penguin African Library, Penguin Education and Allen Lane the Penguin Press.

Kaye Webb introduced Peacock Books, and the Puffin Club, whose magazine Puffin Post, with covers by a host of recent and contemporary artists, will surely become highly sought after by collectors. In place of Puffin Picture Books she introduced the New Puffin Picture Books and Picture Puffins, a series that continues today, and, again offers a range of accessible and highly collectable books — once they can be prised away from their first owners. Jan Pienkowski, for examples, with his Christmas and Easter, the Meg and Mog series, and much besides is just one of the Puffin author/artists whose work will continue to be admired and sought.

Sir Allen Lane announced his impending retirement to coincide with his fifty years in publishing, celebrated by the publication of the Penguin Ulysses. In truth, he never quite retired, and though he naturally had long taken a back seat in editorial matters, Penguin was such a great part of his life that he was quite unable to let go entirely. He died on the 7 July 1970, shortly before his 68th birthday, after a long illness, never finally deciding on the future of Penguin.

Almost immediately after his death Penguin became part of the Pearson group, where it remains today — recognisably Penguin, but as far removed from the Penguin of 1970 as that company was from its small beginnings in July 1935.

In 2005 seventy years of Penguin will be an event well worth celebrating, for all that the great majority of Penguin collectors will continue to look to Penguin’s past rather than its present output. The years have not passed by entirely smoothly, as many former Penguin staff will testify. The catalogue reveals a number of short-lived series, mostly experiments deemed to have failed, such as the four exquisite Porpoise Books, edited by Grace Hogarth just after the war; the four 1940-1 Prints by Feliks Topolski, the ten Penguin illustrated Classics from 1938, embellished with wood engravings under the supervision of Robert Jibbings, or the more prosaic Penguin Hansard, of which just six volumes appeared during the early war years. Most revealing of the mercurial character of the firm’s founder was the sudden, indeed overnight, disappearance from the stock list of the 1966 savage book of cartoons Sine Massacre. This strange event epitomised the obvious difficulties Lane was experiencing adapting to both the changed circumstances of his company, which had gone public in the wake of the success of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover defence, and to the new generation of readers and book buyers which this event had heralded. While he had met this challenge head on with the appointment of a new generation of editors, led by the equally mercurial and inspirational Tony Godwin, he was nevertheless out of sympathy with much of what that new generation demanded — both in terms of reading matter and style of presentation. The outrageously iconoclastic Massacre was too much. He returned to the warehouse one night, removed every unsold copy, and destroyed them. It is not known how many copies survived: they turn up in bookshops occasionally — and are worth grabbing as both a possible investment, and for the genuine shocks that this satirical and furious volume can still deliver.

In all, between 1935 and 1970, Penguin issued some 60 separate series. They cover every conceivable subject, and, for the potential collector offer the widest possible range of choice and challenge. Today, embarking, for instance, on acquiring a complete set of King Penguins should be quite straightforward —only two books in the series of 76 are difficult to find, but even these can be had for a price. Deciding on, say, the first hundred Classics or Poets will bring many rewards — quite apart from the texts themselves the covers and overall book design will show a progression and adaptation to changing styles and standards. Every postwar book bears the unmistakable stamp of Jan Tschichold and Hans Schmoller.

The beautifully lithographed Puffin Picture Books, many now extremely rare will present an altogether different challenge — a quest over many years. Very few collectors can boast a complete set. For the more intrepid still, Penguin’s Miscellaneous collection (prefixed 03 offers a greater challenge still. The series is a hotchpotch of hard and soft covered books, few of which look like conventional Penguins, while some lack any identifying mark at all. The rewards are great: Saul Steinberg’s All in Line; the chilling Civilisation by Geza Szobel, Graves’s de luxe edition of his translation of The Golden Ass; 021, The Penguin Story, every collector’s vade mecum, containing the complete Penguin catalogue up to July 1956, and the ultimate collector’s list, Q100 The Complete Catalogue, a large orange ring binder file.

The ultimate Penguin challenge is to acquire Allen Lane’s Christmas Books, privately printed in limited editions occasionally over four decades. Of these, the only two that even begin to be easy to find are the 1961 The Trial of Lady Chatterley, edited by C. H. Rolph (issued originally as a Penguin Special, S 191), and the 1957 edition of Private Angelo, which bears the added distinction of being ‘composed entirely without metal type: it is the first book to have been produced in GB by means of photocomposition on the Intertype Fotosetter.’ And whilst other Lane Christmas Books may be considerably rarer, none are more beautifully produced than the 1958 Boxwood & Graver, of which 1,500 copies were published with a wood veneer cover — the contents consisting of decorations and cover illustrations engraved by contemporary artists such as David Gentleman, Reynolds Stone and Diana Bloomfield.

For the collector then, seventy years of Penguin history offers something affordable for everyone — the ideal, of course, that Penguin originally sponsored. And while you can expect to pay considerably more than 6d for these early editions, the cost will usually be a small price to pay for an investment in an important part of all our lives, and the beginnings of a library of the writing from every continent and by every notable author of the first two thirds of this century and throughout history. What more could anyone ask from a collection?

© Steve Hare

Penguin Collectors’ Society membership details on