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Preserving India’s Wild West history

As India celebrates the 70th anniversary of its independence, here’s a short look back at one little known aspect of those last pre-independence days – its Wild West paperbacks.  I’ve written before about the Collins paperbacks published in India during the war and in the years immediately afterwards.  They’re now generally very difficult to find, although I’m not sure there’s anybody other than myself searching for them.  But if most of them are difficult to find, the Wild West paperbacks seem to be almost impossible.

Judging by the lists of titles in the other books I have, Collins published over 40 westerns in paperback in India in the 1940s, most of them as White Circle paperbacks and a few in their general series.   There seem to have been a further 12 westerns in the series of Services Editions, printed specially for the British forces in India and SEAC, and at least three more published by Collins in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.  That’s over 50 different books, that would have been printed in large quantities – I’d have thought at least 10,000 copies of each book and possibly several times as many.  In total surely at least half a million books.  Yet in thirty years or so of searching, I had never seen a single copy of any of them.

There are reasons of course.  They were printed on poor quality paper and seen as disposable items.  Many would have been sold to British expatriates or British troops in India and would not have been thought worth transporting home.   The westerns may have survived less well than the crime stories and other novels, because they were more avidly read and passed around, or perhaps because they were seen as more disposable.  And even if copies have survived in India, they’re inevitably difficult to track down from Britain now.  Perhaps one day I’ll be able to search for them on the ground and find they’re not as rare as I think.

But this week I finally found one.   It’s in appalling condition, worn and dirty with the front cover missing and the spine disintegrating.  Even at £5, including postage, it was hardly a bargain.  But it’s the first Indian Wild West paperback from Collins that I have ever seen.  A small piece of history has been preserved.

  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers title page  India WC WWC1- Texas triggers printing history

Not a pretty sight, but possibly unique

And it follows an earlier success, just over a year ago, in finding a western paperback from Ceylon, this one in much better condition.  So the search is not impossible after all.  There are westerns out there waiting to be found.  I’d love to hear of others.

Ceylon WC1 Rustlers on the loose

A White Circle western, published in Ceylon

Collins paperbacks in Ceylon

I wrote last year about the Collins White Circle editions and other Collins paperbacks published in India around the end of the war, and mentioned the similar issues for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).   So here finally is more about those editions.

Ceylon GC1 the stone of chastity
Collins White Circle Ceylon Edition

There are certainly far fewer of them than the Indian editions, probably only around twenty books.  Like the Indian editions, they’re very difficult to find, but I wouldn’t say necessarily more difficult, so maybe the print runs weren’t a lot smaller.   Some day it would be great to get to Sri Lanka and search for them there.   But for the moment I have to make do with what can be found in Britain.

Several of them include lists of the books published in Ceylon, including varying numbers of titles, with the longest list I’ve seen covering 18 novels.  I do have two books though that aren’t on that list, so it’s certainly incomplete.

Collins Ceylon list from Dames dont care

At first glance most of the books are indistinguishable from the Indian editions and it’s only from the internal information about printing and price that they can be distinguished.   Some of the same cover styles were used, but just with less variety.  There was though the same split between higher-priced Collins paperbacks and cheaper White Circle Editions.   The White Circle books sold for one rupee, while other Collins paperbacks were 2 Rupees or 2 Rupees and 50 cents.   The lists of titles though mix both types together, so they clearly weren’t seen as completely separate series.

Ceylon ST2 - Shabby Tiger
Ceylon P1 - Stars are dark

Two of the higher priced Ceylon paperbacks

All the books that I’ve seen were printed by the Times of Ceylon Co. in Colombo under the name of David Vast, and published around 1945 or 1946.   It seems likely that they were aimed mostly at British forces stationed in Ceylon or other British expatriates living there, but there would have been some market as well amongst the local population.  Most of the books carry adverts, either on the back cover or the dustwrapper flaps, often for Lifebuoy soap, and these look as if they’re aimed at the expatriate population.   I’m sure that local people were concerned about personal freshness too, but perhaps without the insecurities of the British about B.O.!

Collins Ceylon rear cover

More evidence for the books being aimed at expatriates or forces personnel comes from the fact that copies do still turn up occasionally in Britain, presumably brought over when the purchasers came home.   As with the Indian editions though, I’ve never been able to find a copy of any of the Westerns in the series.   Were they seen as too trashy to be worth bringing back?

It ain’t half hot Mum – Indian Services Editions

At the end of the Second World War there were large numbers of British Servicemen stationed in India. My father was one of them, arriving in India in 1945 (or possibly not until 1946?) with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and passing through Doelali, the British Army base that was effectively a transit camp for most British soldiers arriving in India.  Its name entered into the language, with doolally coming to mean a kind of madness, and much later it became the setting for the BBC comedy programme ‘It ain’t half hot Mum’.

Somerset Light Infantry at Deolali

British officers at Deolali, 1947. Photo from, courtesy of Anthony Loach

Like army units everywhere, they would have received shipments of books for regimental and unit libraries alongside shipments of other military equipment, and these would no doubt have included the specially printed paperback Services Editions.  But in reality it made little sense to send books on a hazardous journey for thousands of miles around the world, from a home base in Britain where paper was severely rationed.   British publishers, including Collins, the largest publisher of Services Editions, had already moved away from the export of books towards local printing and publishing where possible.   Collins had established a significant publishing programme in India and no doubt many of its books were bought by soldiers and other Army personnel, as well as by the civilian population, both expatriate and local.

 Collins c244  Indian SE4

UK Services Edition and Indian Services Edition – both Collins White Circle

So it was a natural step for Collins to print Services Editions in India as well.  They were commissioned by the ‘Welfare General in India’ to produce a series of paperbacks, including some of the same titles that had already appeared in the UK Services Editions series.   These books would not be for sale, but would be distributed for free to service units.   They carried the prominent text across the front ‘Printed specially for the Army and Royal Air Force in India and SEAC’ and although they still had elements of the ‘White Circle’ branding, they were plainer than the equivalent Services Editions printed in the UK.

Indian SE2    Indian SE1

There are lists in the books that suggest that up to 40 different books were ‘in preparation’, but it’s hard to say whether these were all published or not.  I have only ever found copies of four of the books myself and I know of surviving copies of two others.  Twelve of the titles listed were Westerns, always the most difficult to find, and I’ve never seen evidence of any of these having survived, although I suspect at least some of them were published, probably with the bright yellow covers used for the other White Circle westerns.  If anyone’s ever seen one, I’d love to hear about it.

None of the books carry printing dates, but I think they’re all from 1945 to 1946.  Most of the books are in the standard paperback size of the time, but one that I have is in a smaller format.

An Indian Summer

This is the third in a series of posts this summer about the Collins White Circle paperbacks, and takes a first look at the editions published in India towards the end of the war.  The difficulties of publishing in wartime Britain, and the impracticality of exporting books, had led UK publishing companies to look more seriously at local printing in the larger overseas markets for English language paperbacks.   It was at this time that Penguin started local printing in the USA, in Australia and in New Zealand and Collins launched a long running series in Canada.   Both companies looked too at the markets where significant expatriate and local English-speaking populations had been swelled by the arrival of British forces.  In Penguin’s case this led to a number of Egyptian and Palestinian editions, while Collins launched series in India and in Ceylon.

Collins Indian F1  Collins Indian CC1

White Circle Indian editions

For Collins their Indian venture was not limited to White Circle editions.   They published Indian hardback editions, and other paperback editions as well as launching the White Circle brand.   I’m not aware of any definitive list of what books they published in India, but I have a rough list of around 230 paperbacks, of which maybe around 150 were White Circle editions.  There are undoubtedly more.  The books themselves are now very difficult to find, and so far as I am aware, there are no private or public collections of them (other than the limited selection I have) , so it is likely that very few copies remain of some titles, possibly none in some cases.

India S3 - Death at the helm low

A Collins Indian edition – but not White Circle

In the UK, White Circle was the main paperback brand of Collins, but in India it seems to have been used as a budget brand.   Their other paperbacks, printed on better quality paper, sold for 2 to 3 Rupees, whereas most of the White Circle books sold for just 14 Annas.  There were 16 Annas to a Rupee (a typically idiosyncratic British multiple).   I suspect a lot of the books must have been bought by British expatriates or British soldiers, and a few of these found their way back to Britain.  But there must have been some market among the local Indian population as well – maybe there are still caches of them tucked away in India’s second-hand bookshops.

Collins Indian rear cover

Local Indian adverts were a feature of the rear covers

Most of the books show no dates and no printing history, so it’s a bit of a guess exactly when they were issued.  The few that do are consistent with dates of around 1945 or 1946.

Most of the titles had already been published in White Circle editions in the UK, although it’s possible that there are a few paperback first printings, and they naturally followed the mix of genres in the UK series.   There appear to have been a lot of westerns, although these are particularly elusive and I’ve never found a copy of any of them.  Crime Club books dominate amongst the copies I have found, but there are mystery titles too and general fiction.  I’ve seen no evidence of any of the romantic novels from the UK series being reprinted in India.   The cover designs are mostly the standard UK designs, although there are also a few with illustrated covers, some directly following the design of Canadian White Circle editions.

Collins Indian CC2 Collins Indian F2 Collins Indian F3

A selection of illustrated covers on Indian White Circle editions

I’ll come back later to the related Indian Services Editions, and also to the series of Collins paperbacks in Ceylon.  There were possibly about 20 of these in total, with half of them being White Circle editions.