Crime author Cecil Street wrote around 150 crime novels, mostly under the pseudonyms of John Rhode and Miles Burton, between about 1925 and 1960. He was writing in the Golden Age of crime fiction and most of his books were published by the leading crime publisher of the time, the Collins Crime Club. That put him in distinguished company, appearing alongside Agatha Christie and a host of other leading crime writers.
Street’s books are still widely collected today, with some of them still in print. But it’s probably fair to say that his critical reputation has not survived as well as some of his contemporaries. Julian Symons, in his history of crime writing, categorised Street as one of the ‘humdrum’ writers, producing stories that were professionally crafted, but almost more like crossword puzzles than literature. A more recent book by Curtis Evans, ‘Masters of the Humdrum mystery’, tries to redress the balance and restore a bit of his battered reputation.
But his books were certainly popular in their time, and at the time of the Second World War they were exactly the kind of book that was wanted for the Services. As Collins produced a long series of paperback Services Editions including many of their Crime Club titles, Rhode and Burton titles inevitably featured strongly.
The series started in 1943 with numbering starting from c201, although numbers were only given retrospectively to the first 16 titles. So the 17th volume, ‘Murder at Lilac Cottage’ by John Rhode was possibly the first one to actually carry a series number, c217. I can’t be sure, as I’ve never seen this in first printing, which would be dated 1943. The only copies I’ve seen, all say ‘Services Edition 1946’ in the printing history, with no mention of the earlier printing. I live in hope of coming across an edition that says ‘Services Edition 1943’ one day. That would also be the paperback 1st printing as it appeared as a standard White Circle paperback only in March 1944.
Two more Street novels were issued in early 1944 – ‘Murder M.D.’ by Miles Burton as volume c248 and ‘Men die at Cyprus Lodge’ by John Rhode as c251. Both also exist as reprints dated 1946, with no indication of the earlier printing, but first printings should say ‘Services Edition 1944’. Inevitably, most of the copies that survive are the later 1946 printing, and first printings are scarce. Again the first printing Services Editions are also the first paperback printings. In fact so far as I know that’s the case for all the Rhode / Burton editions. They were all novels that had been first published in hardback only a year or two earlier, and had not previously appeared in paperback. It was often several years later before paperback editions appeared for non-Services customers.
The two 1944 editions were followed by six in 1945, and so far as I know, none of these were reprinted, so all copies say ‘Services Edition 1945’. ‘Four ply yarn’ by Miles Burton and ‘Death invades the meeting’ by John Rhode appeared early in the year as c291 and c292, then ‘Dead stop’ by Burton as c304, and two John Rhodes – ‘Dead on the track’ and ‘Night exercise’ as c311 and c312. ‘Night exercise’ was the only one of the Rhode Services Editions not to feature Dr. Priestley as the detective. A final Miles Burton novel, ‘The three corpse trick’ was published at the end of 1945 as c348.
Overall then nine of Street’s novels appeared in the series, more than those of any other crime writer. Even Agatha Christie only had eight.
Almost all Services Editions are paperbacks, mostly very thin, cheap paperbacks on poor quality wartime paper. Apart from the need to reduce costs in wartime, there was also the practical matter of fitting into a battledress pocket.
So what are we to make of the Harrap Services Editions, a hardback series issued towards the end of the war? These are not only hardbacks, but some of them very substantial books, certainly not pocket size.
Of course there were hardback books in Service libraries throughout the war. Many of the early books were donated by the public and came in all shapes and sizes, as well as being on all manner of topics, many of them of little interest to their intended readers. On the other hand it was precisely because many of the donated books were unsuitable, that the new series of paperback Services Editions were launched in 1943.
Those paperbacks were a huge success and were so widely read and passed around that many of them simply disintegrated, one of the factors making them so scarce today. Some units developed their own solutions, providing homemade hard bindings to make them last a little longer. But perhaps as the war moved towards an end in 1945, it became clear that there was a need for something more durable.
Did the armed forces commission a series of hardbacks from Harrap, or was it an initiative from the publisher? By 1945 the dominance of the two long series of paperback Services Editions, from Collins and from Guild Books, was coming to an end. Several other publishers were starting to produce Services Editions, presumably under some sort of contract with the Services that at least enabled them to access the necessary paper ration. But I suspect individual publishers still had a fair amount of discretion over exactly what they published as Services Editions.
In the case of Harrap, all they seem to have done is take some of the books that they were publishing anyway and stamp Services Edition on the front cover. There is nothing in the printing history that suggests a specific printing for the services. The only evidence that they are Services Editions at all is that stamp on the front board. Nor is there any evidence that they were a series in the normal sense. They come in all shapes and sizes and all types of book. The five examples I have come across include two spy novels by Helen MacInnes, an oilfield novel by Robert Sturgis, the semi-fictionalised account of life in Thailand that later formed the basis for the musical ‘The King and I’, and a biography of General Allenby, a military leader. Are there many others?
Four of these five books were printed in 1945, and the fifth in 1946. Judging by the scarcity of the books today, the numbers printed (or the numbers of those printed that were stamped “Services Edition”) must have been small. Almost all Services Editions are now difficult to find, even those paperbacks printed in editions of 50,000 copies. But while it’s relatively easy to make 50,000 poor quality paperbacks disappear, that seems more difficult with hardbacks. If even 5,000 copies of each book were printed, you might expect several hundred to have survived. But if they have, I don’t know where they are.
Two of the copies I have show clear evidence of Services use. One other has the half-title torn out, often seen with Services Editions, presumably to remove evidence of Services ownership. So unlike some later Services Editions, they do at least seem to have reached their intended market.
I’d love to hear from anyone who knows anything more about these unusual and rather surprising books.
By the time war broke out in 1939, the Collins White Circle series was well established as a serious competitor to Penguin, particularly in the area of genre fiction – crime, mystery, westerns and romantic novels. The Crime Club section of the series had published around 80 titles and the Westerns were up to 30 or more. Titles continued to be added throughout 1940 and 1941, but gradually paper rationing started to bite. Books had to meet the War Economy standard and the flow of new titles slowed to a trickle.
A paper quota was available though for the paperback Services Editions, and this was one area where Penguin had got it wrong, launching the misconceived ‘Forces Book Club’ and then withdrawing from the market. It was an opportunity for Collins to make an impression, and their product was in some ways ideal for it. Romantic fiction was not going to work, for what were then almost exclusively male armed forces, but the other categories in their White Circle series could carry straight across. Crime novels and Westerns were just what the Services wanted.
White Circle Westerns in standard format and in Services Edition
Over the period from 1943 to 1946 the Collins series of Services Editions published 164 titles, including at least 33 Westerns, and probably 36. I don’t know exactly how many because I have no idea of the titles of the books numbered c327, c328 and c330. If anyone does know, or even better has a copy of any of these books, I’d be delighted to hear from them. The other books with similar numbers are Westerns, so it seems likely that these are too, but I can’t be sure.
Certainly the series started with eight Westerns in the first sixteen titles. See my post on the early Collins Services Editions for more detail. It’s enough for now to say that those first eight Westerns have almost disappeared without trace. In over 25 years of searching for them, I have found only one in first printing and two others in reprints.
The next batch through to the end of 1944 is not much better. I have found copies of just four of the twelve books, but I do at least know the titles of the others, although not their series numbers. Any evidence of the books below in Services Editions would be welcome.
|Curran, Tex||Riding fool|
|Dawson, Peter||Time to ride|
|Ermine, Will||Watchdog of Thunder River|
|Lee, Ranger||Red shirt|
|Lee, Ranger||The silver train|
|Robertson, F. C.||Rustlers on the loose|
|Robertson, F. C.||Kingdom for a horse|
|Short, Luke||Ride the man down|
That leaves a further thirteen, possibly sixteen, Westerns published in 1945 and 1946. I have copies of seven of them, some of which I’ve seen more than once, so I suppose they’re a little more common, which is what you’d expect, but they’re still frustratingly difficult to find.
That’s true of almost all Services Editions, but Westerns do seem to be particularly rare. It’s true for the smaller number of Westerns in the Guild Books series of Services Editions as well. I’m pretty sure that the Westerns were printed in at least as large quantities as other titles, but they seem to have survived less well. I can only assume that’s because they had more use, they were read more avidly and more often, passed around more or borrowed more often from unit libraries. Services Editions were printed on poor quality paper, and often stored and read in battlefield conditions, and in hot damp climates, so they wouldn’t survive repeated use for long.
Or possibly Westerns were just seen as more disposable, and have continued to be seen in that way. When service libraries were being cleared out, were Westerns more likely to be thrown away? If they survived that clear-out and were accepted into somebody’s home, were they still more likely to end up in the bin than other types of fiction? If they got as far as a second-hand bookshop, would bookdealers have considered them worthy of a place on the shelf? Or would they have ended up in a box in a dark corner or have been consigned to a cellar to moulder and die?
Most of the Westerns in the series were written under pseudonyms, and around a third of the books came from a single author, Charles Horace Snow. He contributed books under three different names – four books as Ranger Lee, four as Gary Marshall and three as Wade Smith. Another eight books came from two brothers – four by Frederick Glidden under the name of Luke Short, and four by his brother Jonathan under the name of Peter Dawson.
I don’t think any of them are much read now. Westerns were enormously popular in wartime and in the postwar years, but interest in them seems to have gone down and down. Finding copies of these books, or even any information about them, is a race against time.
Having recently written a post about the Jarrold’s Jackdaw Library, it seems appropriate to follow it up with one about the Toucan novels. The two series seem to go together in several ways. They both came from the Hutchinson group of publishers, and they share a physical similarity, not only with each other, but with almost all the new paperback series launched in those few years after Penguin’s breakthrough. They also share, with each other and with Collins, the use of a white circle as the main title panel.
And of course they both use a bird as their brand and series title. They were far from the only series to do so in the period after the launch of Penguin Books.
Toucans and Jackdaws – birds of a feather
In choosing a Toucan as their brand, Hutchinson may have had one eye on Penguin and on Jackdaw, but they probably had the other eye on Guinness, whose famous toucan had appeared just two years earlier. What would previously have been a rather obscure bird, had been propelled to the centre of media attention by the Guinness advertising campaign.
In reviewing Jackdaw, I asked the question why Hutchinson needed another paperback series in October 1936. At that point they already had the Hutchinson Pocket Library, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library and the Crime Book Society series, all launched within the previous 12 months. So it’s even more strange that just 4 months later they launched yet another new series and another new brand. Was there really a market space left for the Toucan Novels when they appeared in February 1937?
I can’t work out whether it was a deliberate strategy not to put all their eggs in one basket, or just a lack of strategic co-ordination within the group.
Other Hutchinson 6d series from 1935 / 1936
Toucan at least showed some evidence of co-ordination, as the books came from several different publishing imprints within the Hutchinson Group. Most of the first group of titles came from Hurst & Blackett, although there were two from Hutchinson itself. Then a group of books from Stanley Paul and another from John Long. But like Jackdaw, and like several other new paperback series in the 1930s, there was then a pause after an initial rush of titles. It took time for the market to adjust to yet another new paperback series, and time for the initial print run to sell out.
After volume 20 appeared in June 1937, there were no new titles for almost a year, then a small group of titles in summer 1938, but it was not until May 1939 that the series really got going again. The main publisher in this second phase was Stanley Paul, although there were also books from Hurst & Blackett and a few from Skeffington & Son.
The covers of the early books were printed in two colours to highlight the Toucan’s yellow beak, and most of the early books were in a purply crimson colour, with a few in green. The group of books from volumes 17 to 20, all published by John Long, are missing the yellow highlighting on the book covers, although it is still there on the dust-wrappers. Was this an economy measure, saving on two colour printing in a place where it would not normally be noticed by the purchaser? Or was it just a mistake?
Front cover and dust-wrapper of volume 17
It turned out, perhaps inadvertently, to be a herald of the future. From around volume 32 onwards, possibly earlier, all or almost all books were printed with yellow covers. This allowed the toucan’s beak to be yellow without the need for two-colour printing, although it did lose some of the earlier impact. A little while later, dust-wrappers were dropped, and then prices started to creep up, with some volumes selling for a while at 7d, before wartime economy measures really started to bite.
An early Toucan in green and a later one in yellow
By mid 1940 it was impossible to continue on anything like the pre-war basis, and the numbered series came to an end with volume 62. A few more books were published during the war, effectively as one-offs, but they had to meet the war economy standard, which meant low paper quality, small fonts and small margins, making the most of the paper rationing that was hitting all publishers. I know of two wartime Toucans at 9d, although there may well be others. Then later, at least three books at 1s 3d, and post-war others at 1s 6d.
The books published in the Toucan series had no great literary pretensions, and few of them are much remembered today. The authors are generally pretty obscure, although there is one Edgar Wallace title and perhaps most significantly, two of the Maigret books by Georges Simenon. Simenon was at that time so little known in Britain that he had to be described on the book cover as ‘The Edgar Wallace of France’.
As a final comment, seven books in the Hutchinson Group series of Services Editions were also referred to as Toucan Novels in a brief mention at the top of the cover. It’s not entirely clear what the point of this was, as there was no other Toucan branding, and only one of the books had previously appeared as a Toucan novel. Indeed three were from a publisher, Rich and Cowan, which had not previously contributed books to the Toucan series. But it’s one of many examples of confusion in branding within the Hutchinson Group at that time.
I’ve spent a good part of my life collecting, researching and generally championing the Services Editions, issued to the British Armed Forces during the Second World War. I’ve always felt that they have been unjustly neglected, particularly in comparison with the American Armed Services Editions, which are well known, well-researched and widely collected, including a full collection in the Library of Congress.
That contrast is heightened by a fascinating new book on the US editions, ‘When books went to war’. Amongst other articles and research, there have already been at least two quite significant books published on the Armed Services Editions. The war was barely over before ‘A history of the Council on Books in Wartime’ was published in 1946 (written by Robert O. Ballou from a draft by Irene Rakosky). Then forty years after the launch of the series, an event to celebrate them was held at the Library of Congress in 1983 and a selection of papers published the following year as ‘Books in Action’, edited by John Y. Cole.
The first of these works is referenced extensively in Molly Guptill Manning’s new book, while the second is surprisingly neglected. The major new resource she has unearthed and used though is a wide variety of letters written by servicemen to authors and to the Council on Books in Wartime. These are what make the book, transforming it from a dry bibliographical history or reference book to a vibrant and uplifting story of triumph and adversity – at times almost an emotional read. It’s clear that many soldiers appreciated the books enormously, even to the extent that they transformed the lives of some servicemen, opening their eyes to a wider world and to new post-war possibilities. The narrative of the book is also helped by setting it in the context of the Nazi book-burnings, contrasting American freedom and liberality with Nazi censorship and destruction.
It’s a very entertaining read and I’d recommend it to a much wider audience than most books about books, which are usually pretty dry and specialist. My one real reservation is, perhaps not surprisingly, that it again fails to give due credit to the UK Services Editions. As usual, they’re mostly ignored, but in one section on the British publishing industry in wartime, the author claims that ‘book shortages … rendered distribution of free reading material to members of the Royal Army and Navy impossible’. British troops are said to have gaped at the crates of Armed Services Editions (ASEs) supplied to American forces, marvelling at how well taken care of they were. ‘Many British soldiers were left wondering: Why didn’t their government care for their morale needs by supplying paperback books?’
The answer of course is that the British Government did supply paperback books. Not only did they supply around 500 different titles as Services Editions, but they were ahead of the Americans in doing so. It seems likely that the ASEs were at least in part inspired by the British experiences in this area, although there is no acknowledgement of this. The Penguin Forces Book Club issued a series of 120 paperbacks between October 1942 and September 1943 (on a subscription basis for army units, but effectively free to servicemen) and the main programme of Services Editions with wide distribution started in July 1943. The first ASEs did not appear until September of the same year.
Of course it’s possible that ASEs reached some locations that British Services Editions never got to, leading to admiration or jealousy from the British forces. And the Americans certainly had a greater range of titles and longer print runs, meaning the books are much easier to find today, but they were not the first. They may even have been behind the Germans too, who published ‘Feldpostaugaben’, although on a slightly different basis, and I’m not sure over what period. And the Swiss, who were not even fighting in the war, issued a series of paperbacks described as Soldaten-Bücherei, or Soldiers’ Library, at least as early as 1939.
Of course all of this is just my personal hobbyhorse. It will be a minor or irrelevant point for most people reading the book and I doubt it will detract at all from their enjoyment of it. In the end this is a story, more than a bibliographical work, and as a story it’s well written and enjoyable. I hope many more people will enjoy it.
Writing a detective story with football as a background seems such a good idea that it’s surprising it hasn’t been done more often. Dick Francis, and before him Nat Gould, made an entire career writing crime stories based on horse racing, but football-themed crime stories seem thin on the ground.
There is though ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’, written by Leonard Gribble and first published by Harrap in 1939. It was made into a film later the same year and it’s perhaps the film that’s now better remembered than the book. My interest though comes neither from the film nor from the first printing of the book, but from its later issue as one of the early Services Editions for the British Armed Forces.
First though the story and its background. Arsenal were the dominant football team of the 1930s, winning the league title 5 times, including three consecutive wins in 1932-33, 1933-34 and 1934-35. They were managed by the great Herbert Chapman until his death in 1934 and from the 1934-35 season by George Allison. Both Chapman and Allison and many of the Arsenal team from those years would have been household names, as familiar as Jose Mourinho or Cristiano Ronaldo today. The story features all of them, with a significant role for the manager, George Allison, and the book starts with a page of autographs of all the team.
Without giving away any plot spoilers, the obvious difficulty is that real people featuring in a detective story can hardly be either the victim or the murderer (or the detective), and if they can’t be the murderer, it’s difficult to make them credible suspects either. So inevitably they have a limited role. To provide plenty of suspects, the author has to invent a fictional team for Arsenal to play against, and a more dysfunctional team you could hardly imagine, despite the author’s insistence that building the team has been a fantastic achievement.
Having been first published in 1939, just before the outbreak of war, ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’ was an obvious candidate when the British Publishers’ Guild, an association of publishers, was looking for books that could be added to its series of Services Editions – paperbacks published for distribution to the armed forces. They wanted popular fiction, including crime fiction, and they wanted up-to-date books, preferably not previously published in paperback.
The first two books to be provided by Harrap were this one, published as volume S19 in the series, and ‘Murder at Wrides Park’ by J.S. Fletcher, published as volume S20, both books appearing in 1943. The print run was probably 50,000 copies of each book, but they are both almost impossible to find now. Even the reprint of ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’ printed in a wider format by The Amalgamated Press (possibly another 50,000 copies?), with spare copies sold on by W.H. Smith after the war, has almost completely disappeared. The printing history on the reprint is not updated, so still says 1943, but it is certainly later, probably 1946. The narrow first printing, printed by C. Tinling & Co. Ltd., is like all early Services Editions exceptionally rare (although sadly, probably not very valuable). My copy was found only after almost thirty years of searching.
When I did find it though, it came with a letter written by the author, and dated some 15 years later. Leonard Gribble seems to be answering a letter that asked for information about the pseudonyms he wrote under. He refuses to answer, saying he is bound by contractual terms, but refers his correspondent to Who’s Who. The modern equivalent, Wikipedia, suggests he wrote under a series of names including Leo Grex, Piers Marlowe, Bruce Sanders, Dexter Muir, Sterry Browning, Louis Grey and Landon Grant. Few of his other works though achieved the success of ‘The Arsenal Stadium Mystery’, and he came back to the idea of football themed mysteries in 1950, publishing ‘They kidnapped Stanley Matthews’, again featuring Anthony Slade as the detective.
There seem to be surprisingly few early paperback editions of Rex Stout novels in the UK, but perhaps fittingly, one area where he was well recognised was in the Services Editions produced for the British Armed Forces. I say fittingly, because it was Stout who established the Writers’ War Board in the US, and he was heavily involved in American efforts to use books to help win both the physical war and the “war of ideas”.
His early books had been published in the UK by Cassell & Co., but by the time war broke out, like most other crime writers, he had been enticed to the Collins Crime Club, and it was Collins who were by far the largest publisher of Services Editions. The Guild Books series was longer, but as the Guild was an association of publishers, their series included books from a wide range of different companies, including both Cassell and Collins.
The first Stout novel to appear in a Services Edition was ‘Black Orchids’, a combination of two Nero Wolfe short stories that had been published in the US in 1942 and then in a Collins Crime Club edition in the UK in July 1943. The Services Edition was not long after, published in 1943 as number c218 in the Collins series (which started at c201). I’ve never seen a copy, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has one or knows of one.
The same goes for the next Rex Stout novel to appear in a Services Edition. I’ve never seen a copy of ‘The red box’, but again I know it exists as number S133 of the Guild Books series, published in 1944. This was one of the early Nero Wolfe novels, first published in the UK by Cassells. So Stout became one of the very rare authors to appear in both the main series of UK Services Editions.
After that it was back to the Collins series for two volumes published together in 1945 and featuring other private investigators. Volume c313 was ‘Alphabet Hicks’ and c314 ‘The broken vase’, both stories that had been published in the US in 1941 and then in the Collins Crime Club in 1942. Alphabet Hicks is a one-off mystery featuring Alfred ‘Alphabet’ Hicks and ‘The broken vase’ is the third Tecumseh Fox story. These two are perhaps a little bit easier to find in Services Editions, but that’s only in relative terms. Both were later published by Collins in standard White Circle paperbacks – The broken vase’ as volume 185c in 1950 and ‘Alphabet Hicks’ as 208c in 1952, and these editions are certainly easier to find.
And finally in 1946, there was a Services Edition of ‘Double for death’, the first of the Tecumseh Fox novels. This had already been published in the main White Circle series, as volume 153c in 1945 and by the time it came out in a Services Edition, the programme was almost at an end. Many, if not most, of the Services Edition copies never reached the armed forces, and were released for general sale. So they’re mostly found these days with a WH Smith sticker on the front or the remains of one, authorising their sale, which at least means that they do turn up more often.
The timing of this post is to coincide with a series of posts on Rex Stout by the Tuesday night bloggers. Click on the link to see other posts by the group.
In the years both before and after the Second World War, Hodder & Stoughton were well known for their Yellow Jacket books, often stories of adventure or crime, from writers such as John Buchan, Rider Haggard, Edgar Wallace and Baroness Orczy as well as the Bulldog Drummond stories by ‘Sapper’ and ‘The Saint’ stories by Leslie Charteris. The books appeared in both paperback and hardback editions.
During the war, their range of titles looked well suited to the demands of the Central Services Book Depot for ‘warm’ fiction, westerns and crime, but so far as I know they didn’t contribute any books to the Guild series of Services Editions. Instead they bided their time and in 1944 launched their own series, spurning the generic description of ‘Services Editions’ for their own ‘Services Yellow Jackets’.
For a company that clearly then had an eye to its own brand image, it’s perhaps surprising that they didn’t go for bright yellow jackets on their services series. Instead they opted for a stylised design, apparently based on white cliffs overlooking a blue sea and a yellow sky. Do the blue swooshes, apparently representing waves on the sea, also contain a hint of the ‘blue birds over, the white cliffs of Dover’ that were a feature of “We’ll meet again”, the most popular song and the most popular film of the time? Most copies of the books would after all have been sent abroad to troops serving far from home, and perhaps dreaming of returning home (or dreaming of Vera Lynn?).
I don’t know of any list of the books published as Services Yellow Jackets, other than the list I’ve put together myself, from my own collection and ones I’ve seen elsewhere. I can identify at least 15 titles, published between September 1944 and September 1945, listed below, but it seems a fair bet that there are more. Please let me know if you come across any other books in the series.
Penguin were really the first company to recognise the opportunity for Services Editions, when they launched their Forces Book Club in 1942. But first to recognise an opportunity is not necessarily first to find the right way to exploit it and for once, Penguin got it badly wrong. The Forces Book Club was a miserable failure, ending in September 1943 and leaving Penguin with significant quantities of unsold stock.
By that time other companies had stepped into the gap with much better designed schemes. Both Collins and Guild Books launched long-running series of Services Editions in mid-1943 while Penguin retired to lick its wounds. But by 1945 the Forces were starting to diversify their suppliers of Services Editions and there was another opportunity for Penguin to come in.
In comparison to Collins and Guild, the series of Penguin Services Editions was short – just 16 books, all issued in 1945 – and it was also quite diverse, in terms of both the format and the range of titles. Most of the books were in the standard Penguin three-stripe covers, colours depending on genre, but with ‘Services Edition’ added under a line in the middle section, and they were numbered from SE1 upwards.
There are however a lot of exceptions to the general rule. There are books numbered from SE2 to SE9, but there is no SE1 (the book assumed to be SE1 is actually numbered 502) and there are two SE10s but no SE11. There is no SE14 either, or SE16 or SE17, although SE15 and SE18 exist. SE3 does not say ‘Services Edition’ on the front, while SE9 does, but without the line above it. SE18 is in its standard Penguin Classics cover, with no middle stripe, so has ‘Services Edition’ in a different place, and SE10 ‘Within the Tides’, exists in two different covers. Perhaps most oddly of all, Bernard Shaw’s ‘Major Barbara’ exists in a version shown as a Services Edition in its printing history, but otherwise identical to the normal Penguin edition and with a price of 1 shilling marked on the cover. Services Editions never carried a price as they were not for sale.
Some of the variation in formats
For a series of just 16 books, this is a lot of errors or a lot of confusion, from a company that normally paid a lot of attention to the consistency of its branding and its numbering. It almost suggests that Penguin were not taking this venture very seriously.
If one of the key errors Penguin made in the Forces Book Club series was that the choice of books was too serious and too highbrow, they seemed to have learned little in the intervening years. In fact there seems to have been little thought given to what to publish – they just took whatever was on hand at the time, and it was a thin time. By Penguin’s standards, they published relatively few books in 1945. So into the Services Editions went a new translation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, a Virginia Woolf, three Pelicans, and a biography of Lady Hester Stanhope. Surely no other publisher would have made a selection like that for a mass-market forces readership.
Copies are still relatively easy to find, much easier than most other Services Editions, and it seems likely that a high proportion of the books were released onto the general market rather than going to service use. Penguin brought an early end to their series in 1945, while other publishers continued into 1946, so there may have been mutual agreement that it wasn’t really working. My best guess is that the edition of ‘Major Barbara’ was intended as a Services Edition, but never actually used as one – perhaps withdrawn at the last minute when a decision was taken to end the series, then bound into new covers and issued instead as a normal Penguin.
It seems odd to suggest, but did Penguin produce Services Editions just because it was their patriotic duty? It certainly seems that their heart wasn’t in it.
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’.
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.
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.
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.