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The First Hundred Penguin Books

May 29, 2023
by the gentle author

Meet me next Sunday on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and we will spend the afternoon walking eastward together through the square mile to explore the wonders and the wickedness of the ancient City of London.

Click here to book for my next City of London walk on Sunday 4th June


I came across this set of the first hundred Penguin books in my attic when I was unpacking a box that has been sealed since I moved in. With their faded orange, indigo, green, violet and pink spines they make a fine display and I am fond of this collection that took me so many years to amass.

When I left college, I wrote to companies all over the country seeking work and asking if they would give me an interview if I came to see them. Then I travelled around on the cheap, through a combination of buses, trains and hitchhiking, to visit all these places – the industrial towns of the North and the Cathedral cities of the South – staying in bus stations, youth hostels and seedy B&Bs, and going along filled with hope to interviews that were almost all fruitless. It was the first time I encountered the distinctive regional qualities of Britain and in each city, to ameliorate the day of my interview, I took the opportunity to visit the museums, civic art galleries, cathedrals and castles that distinguish these places. Arriving at each destination, I would consult the directory and make a list of the second-hand booksellers, then mark them on a tourist map and, after the job interview, I would visit every one. There were hundreds of these scruffy dusty old shops with proprietors who were commonly more interested in the book they were reading behind the counter than in any customer. Many were simply junk shops with a few books piled in disorder on some shelves in the back or stacked in cardboard boxes on the pavement outside.

In these shabby old shops, I sometimes came upon Penguin books with a podgy penguin on the cover, quite in contrast to the streamlined bird familiar from modern editions. These early titles, dating from 1935 had a clean bold typography using Eric Gill’s classic sans typeface and could be bought for just twenty or thirty pence. So, in the manner of those cards you get in bubblegum packets, I began to collect any with numbers up to one hundred. In doing so, I discovered a whole library of novelists from the nineteen thirties and reading these copies passed the time pleasantly on my endless journeys. In particular, I liked the work of Eric Linklater whose playful novel “Poet’s Pub” was number two, Compton Mackenzie whose novel of the Edwardian vaudeville “Carnival” was ten, Vita Sackville-West whose novel “The Edwardians” was sixteen, T.F.Powys whose “Mr Weston’s Good Wine” was seventy-three and Sylvia Townsend Warner whose novel “Lolly Willowes” was eighty-four. After these, I read all the other works of these skillful and unjustly neglected novelists.

Eventually I found a job in Perthshire and then subsequently in Inverness, and from here I made frequent trips to Glasgow, which has the best second-hand bookshops in Scotland, to continue my collection. And whenever I made the long rail journey down South, I commonly stopped off to spend a day wandering round Liverpool or Durham or any of the places I had never been, all for the purpose of seeking old Penguins.

The collection was finally completed when I moved back to London and discovered that my next door neighbour Christine was the daughter of Allen Lane who founded Penguin books. She was astonished to see my collection and I was amazed to see the same editions scattered around her house. From Christine, I learnt how her father Allen was bored one day on Exeter St David’s Station (a place familiar to me), changing trains on the way to visit his godmother Agatha Christie. When he searched the bookstall, he could not find anything to read and decided to start his own company publishing cheap editions of good quality books. I presume he did not know that, if he had been there half a century earlier, he could have bought a copy of Thomas Hardy’s first published novel “Desperate Remedies”, because Exeter St David’s was where Hardy experienced that moment no writer can ever forget, of first seeing their book on sale.

I do not think my collection of Penguins is of any great value because they are of highly variable condition and not all are first editions, though every one predates World War II and they are of the uniform early design before the bird slimmed down. While I was collecting these, I thought that I was on a quest to build my career – a fancy that I walked away from, years later. Now these hundred Penguin books are the only evidence of my innocent tenacity to create a life for myself at that time.

Allen Lane’s idealistic conception, to use the mass market to promulgate good writing to the widest readership in cheap editions that anyone could afford, is one that I admire. And these first hundred are a fascinating range of titles, a snapshot of the British public’s reading tastes in the late thirties. Looking back, the search for all these books led me on a wonderful journey through Britain. If you bear in mind that I only found a couple in each city, then you will realise that my complete collection represents a ridiculously large number of failed job interviews in every corner of these islands. It was a job search than became a cultural tour and resulted in a stack of lovely old paperbacks. Now they sit on my shelf here in Spitalfields as souvenirs of all the curious places I never would have visited if it were not my wayward notion to scour the entire country to collect all the first hundred Penguins.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. gkbowood permalink
    May 29, 2023

    What a great way to collect books. I envy your collection for their own sake as well as mementos of a wonderful way to see new places. I have a book describing all the bookstores in London-as if I would ever be able visit them! But it is a fond daydream I contemplate as I add another scrap of paper to place mark an especially interesting one….

  2. Jane from Dorset permalink
    May 29, 2023

    The first thing I noticed is that the titles are in the opposite orientation.
    When did the convention change?
    What a wonderful way to amass a collection and maintain a sense of purpose through all those experiences of rejection.

  3. Suse permalink
    May 29, 2023

    Fascinating. Can you remember where you got each one or have you made notes on that?

  4. Peter permalink
    May 29, 2023

    I’m curious. Acquisition of which number allowed you to complete your collection?

  5. May 29, 2023

    What an amazing collection! I regularly used to visit Hay on Wye, which is the secondhand book collector’s paradise. Almost every shop in the town is a bookshop, or was. I confess that when my late parents moved, here, my freedom to roam was curtailed and I have not visited even after they have gone.
    Instead, I found charity shops and fetes a good place for books. At the King’s School fete, I found an ancient computer programming book, (on the language Smalltalk if anyone is interested), which was an absolute gem.
    I also buy novels, read them once and then pass them onto the ladies in the coffee shop at the university where I teach. We then talk about the book while my coffee is brewing. I discovered what I didn’t like was as valuable as what I did. I read a Jackie Collins book and found that I disliked the entire cast of characters – even the intended hero.
    I do have some books that I will never part with. They were usually purchased in a particular place, or by a particular person, or the story so captured my imagination that I cannot part with it. The spines are broken, the pages yellowed, the edges furred, but my affection endures. One is a book about touring Europe by car, written in the 1950s. My parents, their Austin A40 Somerset, and said book, completed the tour, which they recorded on their 8mm film camera. When they were alive, I paid to have the film footage transferred to DVD at huge expense and can now enjoy watching our dear old Austin with my Dad on the Simplon Pass, swimming at Nice and my Mum posing in Venice along with the other elegant ladies in their Dior new look dresses. A book can be so much more than “just an old book”.
    Treasure your collection dear GA. Even your story of collecting them is a worthy tale.

  6. Micael permalink
    May 29, 2023

    I used to collect Penguin books, preferring them to Corgi.

    Michael Morpurgo’s wife, Clare, is the eldest daughter of Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books. For many years I used c private hire chauffeur service to drive me around England and Wales for my work. The owner of the business also drove Michael Morpurgo regularly and perhaps continues to do so.

  7. Greg T permalink
    May 29, 2023

    I have a full set of the “King Penguins” – published apparently 1939-69, though mostly immediately after WW II

  8. Clare Shepherd permalink
    May 29, 2023

    I loved this post, as I was born in Exeter, but live in Torbay now. I used to take my younger brother to St David’s to ” keep an eye on him” as my mum put it. He was a trainspotting. I would sit on a bench and read my latest book, often a second hand Penguin, or one of their nonfiction Pelicans. We had a flask of tea and sandwiches and Graham would sit with me until a train came. It was only later that I knew the story of Alan Lane, one if my publishing heroes.

    I love you daily posts, as I worked in London. I’m so sorry that redevelopment of the East End threatens so much that make it unique.

  9. May 29, 2023

    Great post, thank you.

  10. May 29, 2023

    Antiquarian bookstores are the paradise places! When I first came to England in the late 70s my earliest walks were to the secondhand bookshops, which were (and are!) to find in every small village, but certainly especially in London. I found treasures here: British literary rarities, many old “National Geographics” from the 40s to the 50s to complete my collection, early editions of A. A. Milne’s children’s books a.m.m. — I love the “landscapes” of the shops, inwards also as outdoors.

    An extraordinary experience for me was the visit to the small community of Hay-on-Wye in Wales in 1999 with their dozens of bookshops. Will probably soon pay my visit to this place again.

    Love & Peace

  11. Elaine Graybill permalink
    May 29, 2023

    What a wonderful story. Fascinating for a lover of literature and books. Thank you. And thank you for the photo of the books.

  12. Bernie permalink
    May 29, 2023

    What strikes me most strongly about this post is the almost unbelievable and complimentary things it tells us (as if we did not already know) about the Gentle Author’s personality. To me, the story of how, as a young person, he travelled the country in search of somewhere to settle is so far from “normal” that it can be seen in retrospect as a pointer to the unique magic of this blog. Dear GA, you will not welcome such a panegyric, but I think one is well justified and wish that I really could do justice to the case.

  13. Cherub permalink
    May 29, 2023

    I have a collection of the tiny 60p books Penguin brought out in the 90s that were excerpts from famous works. I shipped them to Switzerland from Scotland and they are in my hall.

  14. James Brown permalink
    May 29, 2023

    This is an interesting and short history of penguin paperback books.

    I have rather too many of the green ‘whodunits’ all roughly in the same condition as yours 🙂

  15. Eugene Gannon permalink
    May 29, 2023

    One man’s search for Penguins in the UK. That is a great story.

  16. Steve Loreck permalink
    May 30, 2023

    My collecting passion is the Britain in Pictures series published by William Collins from the start of World War II into the 1950’s. Among these 100 plus books are works by George Orwell, Graham Greene, and Vita Sackville-West. They are short books (48 pages), with color and black and white prints. We are still missing about 20 of them and are an excuse to visit second hand book shops wherever we travel. We have found them in New Zealand, Canada, the US, and all over the UK.

  17. Arabella Warner permalink
    May 30, 2023

    What a wonderful collection and what a lovely story.
    You write so amusingly and with such humility

  18. Anita McKelvey permalink
    May 30, 2023

    Your story and collection of vintage paperbacks struck a chord! I wasted no time checking out my bookshelves and discovered similar fragile paperbacks by extinct American publishers such as Charles Boni of NY, Seal Books by Modern Age Books, Inc., Vintage Books and even a U. S. Penguin Book, #568, “Night Flight” by Antoine de St. Exupery! Books were printed between the 1930s-1950s.

    Some years ago, the Philadelphia Athenaeum hosted an exhibit of its mid-19th century collection of Yellowbacks, reprints of popular books, inexpensively mass produced and sold for pennies at railway stations throughout Britain. Such books today are of great value to collectors. Emory University in Atlanta, GA, has digitized more than 1200 titles from its collection. Free downloads! Enjoy!

  19. May 31, 2023

    Oh, lovely! I would be thrilled to get a look at them. Being a US resident I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any of those first copies. I have one post-war Penguin that looks similar but isn’t quite the same. (What I like to collect are the Anchor paperbacks from the 50s — Edward Gorey did the covers for them at the start of his career.)

  20. Paula Carr permalink
    June 4, 2023

    There’s just something so appealing about these early Penguin books, and it goes far beyond their content. I have a number of the green murder mysteries, but sadly have little shelf space for more. I enjoy your century collection!

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