Methuen were a relative latecomer to the ‘sixpenny’ market established by Penguin in 1935. Other companies had reacted much more quickly, so by the time Methuen finally launched their new series in 1939, it was a crowded market. The Collins White Circle series was well established by then, as was the Hutchinson Pocket Library, and many other series too. All of these new series shared the key elements of the Penguin revolution – same size, same price, standard designed covers without cover illustration, and dustwrappers in the same design as the book cover.
Several of them also shared the idea of using a bird as their logo – Jackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books had already joined Penguin and Pelican. So for Methuen to choose a Kingfisher as their logo, as well as copying all the other elements that had become standard, was hardly breaking the mould. At least they didn’t call their series Kingfisher Books, settling instead for Methuen’s Sixpennies.
The series launched with the first four books in April 1939, although the list of titles on the back cover of the books already anticipated a roll-out of books up to number 14. In practice further batches of four books appeared in each of May 1939, June 1939 and July 1939, taking the series up to sixteen books, before it paused. There was nothing more for a full year, until another batch of four titles appeared, dated August 1940.
By this time of course the war was well under way and paper rationing was starting to bite. The effects of it are seen in the abandoning of dustwrappers, and the limiting of the length of the books to 192 pages. Pre-war issues had up to 320 pages and looked generally much bulkier. The wartime books have smaller type, smaller margins and thinner paper as well, so look meagre in comparison. The August 1940 batch are also coloured a pale yellow on the cover, although later titles revert to the pre-war white.
There were twelve more titles to come, published in three batches of four, in January, February and March 1941. Other than going back to white on the cover, they follow the same format as the 1940 issues and all are limited to 192 pages. The final eight books resort to advertising for ‘Shadphos’ tonic tablets (‘commonly known as “brain sparklers”‘!) on the back cover, rather than a list of other titles.
The selection of titles published in the series is generally middlebrow – the type of book that could easily have been published by Penguin. There are titles by Arnold Bennett and A.P. Herbert, Jack London, P.G. Wodehouse and Marjorie Bowen. Indeed all of these authors did, sooner or later, have books published by Penguin. There’s a good range of crime titles and thrillers too, if not by the very best known crime writers – they had mostly been snapped up by Collins. Authors such as Sax Rohmer, George A. Birmingham, Walter S. Masterman and E. Phillips Oppenheim were popular though in their day and still attract some interest today. And then there’s a single Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Overall from a selection of only thirty-two books, that’s not a bad list. It seems unlikely that the series failed because the books weren’t good enough. In the end it probably failed just because of bad timing – three years earlier and it might have succeeded. But launching in April 1939 into a crowded market, just before war and paper rationing were about to hit, was about the worst timing possible.